His Engineering Could Uncover Life on Mars

NJIT graduate Lee Carlson, a systems engineer for Honeybee Robotics, has built robotic mechanisms for several NASA missions to Mars.

If there is life on Mars, the engineering work of Lee Carlson could help uncover it.

Carlson, a systems engineer for Honeybee Robotics, has built robotic mechanisms for several NASA missions to Mars. He built robotic devices for the Phoenix Lander, which searched for water on Mars.  And the work he did on the Curiosity rover will help it analyze soil samples on Mars. NASA hopes the Curiosity rover will determine if Mars can support life.

Carlson graduated from NJIT in 2004 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Honeybee, a robotics firm that develops technology for spacecraft systems, hired him right after he graduated from NJIT. He now works for Honeybee’s Robotics & Automation Technology Group, which is managed by another NJIT graduate, Mike Passaretti. In this interview Carlson discusses the robotics work that he loves. 

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What about your job do you like best?

Honeybee affords me the opportunity to conceptualize, design, analyze, fabricate, assemble, test and deliver a variety of electromechanical systems.  Only working for a small company do you get that opportunity.  I have my hands on the entire process, not just the design. When a prototype works I get the credit. But if it doesn't there's no one to blame but myself.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

As a systems engineer what kind of projects do you work on?

I've worked on a variety of mechanisms such as NASA subsystems, a crane connector for NASA’s Langley Research Center, dust tolerant connector concepts and gas pipe inspection.

Can you discuss the devices you built for NASA?

My first real project for Honeybee was for the Phoenix Lander.  We were tasked with coming up with a single shot deployable cover for both sides of the TEGA (Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer) instrument on the lander deck.  It was launched in 2007 and landed May 25th, 2008.  Soon after landing, the covers were successfully deployed.

What project came next for you?

My next project was for the recently launched Curiosity rover.  Honeybee produced an autonomous "Lazy Susan" mechanism (Sample Manipulation System) to perform sample handling in the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) suite inside the belly of the rover.  I worked as the lead mechanical engineer on this project from 2005 to 2008 when we delivered the flight unit to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.  Curiosity will arrive on Mars in August of 2012.

Do you enjoy working on Space Mission instruments?

There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing that that the work I do could help discover life on Mars.  I thoroughly enjoy what I do for a living.

Did you get to design and build a device when you were an NJIT student?

I did that for my senior design class. My team designed and built a computer monitor mount that was motorized and adjustable.  We took a monitor from a stored position behind a standard desk and placed it up and out to a comfortable viewing distance.  When we participated in the American Society of Mechanical Engineer’s competition, people told us they would buy our mount if they could.  We built a prototype but we didn’t have the money to market it.  I keep the prototype at work and one day if I have time I’d like to retrofit it and see if I could market it.  

That senior design project helped you get your job, right?

Yes, when I interviewed at Honeybee, I talked about my adjustable computer mount project, and how it allowed me to mix theory and practice, and to work on all aspects of engineering.  I showed them the final report and what we accomplished in one semester.  It fit in with the prototyping work done at Honeybee and really helped show what I was capable of.

You transferred to NJIT from Louisiana State University (LSU).

I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and started college at LSU.  I relocated to New York for my wife’s career and I enrolled at NJIT as a sophomore in the fall of 2001.  I got a great education at NJIT that allowed me to come into Honeybee and work successfully.

Did you always want to work in robotics?

Yes, but I didn’t think I’d get a great engineering job in robotics right out of college. The summer after I graduated, Honeybee listed an engineering job on Monster.com.  I applied and was extremely fortunate to get it. 

How do you define robotics?

Robotic comes in all shapes and sizes, but I’d say that anything that you can make move and that replaces or helps a human work is robotics.  Robots should make human life easier and safer.  By sending robotic devices to Mars, we are helping mankind better understand the universe.   

Can you talk about your life outside of work?

My wife is a very successful tax attorney in Manhattan and we have two children, ages 2 and 4.  We live in Murray Hill in Manhattan, a short distance from my office in midtown and I bicycle to work.  We love living in NYC and are very happy and thankful for our family and careers.

(By Robert Florida)