- Kalind Carpenter, 41, is a robotics engineer at NASA in Pasadena, California.
- Carpenter builds space robots that climb ice walls and dive into alien oceans.
- He has tested robots in Antarctica and also taken them to the live volcano of Mount St. Helens.
This essay is based on a discussion with Khalid Carpenter, a 41-year-old robotics engineer from Pasadena, California, about building robots for NASA. Edited for length and clarity.
I remember the first day I walked through the doors of NASA and was shown the building where the Moon rovers were born. I was stuck.
I studied industrial and product engineering at Arizona State University and then started a master’s program in mechanical engineering at California State University in 2010. California State partnered with NASA, which meant that during my master’s degree I had the opportunity to be researcher on a NASA-supported project for 18 months.
Before my master’s degree was completed, I worked as an engineering intern for NASA in Pasadena. Without CSU-LA’s relationship as a NASA research center, I would not have these opportunities. I cried for joy when they accepted me. Now, I work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
For the past 8 years, I’ve helped build robots
I represented ASU in gymnastics and this skill helped me think of all the different ways I can make robots balance and move. I worked on Puffer, a robot for Mars that inflates in place — its tractor-like tires help it roll and climb steep surfaces. I also worked on the Ice Worm, which was a robot that can climb icy walls, and I helped build a robot designed to find life in the ocean of one of Saturn’s moons.
One of the best perks of working for NASA is seeing missions come to life. NASA attracts an amazing group of people from all over the world and being able to interact with people you deeply respect is another huge perk – the launch parties are also a plus.
The most memorable party was the landing party for Mars 2020, during the pandemic, when the Perseverance Rover landed on the Red Planet. It was February 18, 2021, right around Mardi Gras, so there were colorful hats everywhere. There were VIP groups, limousines and press, but the weirdest thing I remember is when my colleague and I had to give a presentation about EELS in a huge auditorium later that day. We wore two of the hats for everyone to see on stage.
The Pasadena lab has been working on different iterations of a robot for years and seeks out the most extreme environments on Earth to test its robots to the limit. I’ve sent my robots to Antarctica, mapped volcanic fissures in Hawaii, and used Rainbow Basin and Pisgah Crater in the Mojave Desert as an analog of Mars.
One of my toughest trips for NASA was in July 2021
I went to the glacier caves of the volcano of St. Helens. Mount Saint Helens is so dangerous that parts of it are off limits to the public. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens exploded with 500 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Now, only a handful of glacier cave explorers and scientists visit the cave each year to look for signs of future eruptions.
While they do their research, we join them in the cave and test the robots. We chose this network of ice caves filled with steam vents as an analog for Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. Enceladus also has water vapor vents, but they are ejected into space to create one of Saturn’s rings. I worked with a team to create the articulated Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) robot, which looks like a string of beads and adapts to undulating terrain. It is designed to dive into one of the vents on this moon and explore the ocean below.
When working on Mount St. Helens, we encounter rock slides, avalanches, fissure openings and poisonous gases. I have been a caver since I was a teenager. For this mission, NASA protocol required us to hike many of the peaks around Southern California, including Mount Whitney, for physical and environmental training. We also got to do CPR and hypothermia training and the mountain safety team provided helicopter, rope and ice safety training on site.
On this expedition, we camped on the glacier at the top of the volcano, but a hot weather flood melted the glacier below the tents. We had to constantly dig out new flat areas where we could set up the tents.
While teaching the robot how to find new life on other planets, it helped us find potentially new life on Earth
Our goal for this mission was to test the EELS payload. We hand-fed the robot samples of dirt and ice from inside the caves so it could learn what to do when it got to Enceladus. When we ran the samples through a digital holographic microscope, we found single-celled creatures, about 1/100th the thickness of a hair, swimming around.
Our expedition to the cave also helped us test which sensors were able to make accurate maps of this environment. Ice reflects light and lasers differently than rocks and plants, and water vapor also makes it hard to see.
It will take 12 years for the spacecraft to reach Enceladus from Earth, but it will take EELS only 90 minutes to send its findings back to Earth. We hope that the Orbilander flight in 2038 will carry an EELS robot.
When I was 4 years old, I used to look at the night sky above my parents’ farm and dream that I was an astronaut
When I was eight I had my bedroom wallpapered with pictures of the planets and by the time I was 10 I was building Lego space bases, robots and spaceships.
I still dream about the Moon, but now I also think about the ocean world and the moons found throughout our solar system. I know the technologies being built will help us on Earth fight climate change, generate sustainable energy, and increase food safety and security.
At the same time, as a robotics engineer for NASA, I also aim to inspire more four-year-olds to pursue their dreams and bring about a better future.