Thomas M. Myrick, an engineer who played a major role in developing a robotic component for two Mars rovers, will receive the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award during New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) annual Fall Awards ceremony. The ceremony will be held Oct. 6 at the university.
As chief engineer at Honeybee Robotics, Myrick, of Warren, was instrumental in sending two RATs to Mars — the Rock Abrasion Tools critical to analytical experiments conducted on Martian rocks by the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Mounted on the end of each rover’s robotic arm, the RAT Myrick helped to design grinds away a few millimeters of a rock’s surface, removing the dust and “weathering rind” that hinders determining the rock’s true nature and composition.
Myrick’s Martian odyssey began with his 1984 BS in mechanical engineering from NJIT, though there was a post-graduation interlude as a house painter. Myrick says that quality, cost and proximity to his then New Providence home were the deciding factors in choosing NJIT, to which he commuted for one year before moving into the Sigma Pi fraternity house near campus. His two years of painting houses after graduation stem from wanting to choose his first engineering job very carefully, to find just the right position. This turned out to be with the division of a large international company that imported industrial robots from Japan.
Helping his employer’s sales staff advise clients on the best use of their robots, Myrick became involved with maintaining the complex equipment and developing innovative ways to integrate the company’s products into the industrial environment. Honeybee Robotics, then mainly an integrator of off-the-shelf systems, had purchased some of these products, and Myrick learned that the chief engineer at Honeybee was transitioning out of the company soon after Honeybee embarked on work for NASA.
Since making the move to Honeybee in the late 1980s, Myrick has been part of the company’s evolution into a leading developer of highly customized robots and related technologies. Founded in 1983 and headquartered in New York City, Honeybee received its first NASA contract in 1986 and has completed projects for companies such as Coca Cola, Con Edison, 3M, Nike and IBM. According to Myrick, the prevailing corporate wisdom about the origin of his own company’s name is that it reflects the Asian heritage of one of the founders. In parts of Asia, the honeybee is esteemed symbolically as a master builder and engineer.
Honeybee has worked on nearly a hundred projects for NASA, including the development of leading-edge hardware for four space-flight missions. One entailed designing a robot whose configuration of head, arms and legs would be similar to that of a human being, and which would perform hazardous work in space by mimicking the motions of an astronaut using a special control system in the relative safety of the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station. Other projects involved the drills and related equipment needed for remote examination of a comet’s solid core and for obtaining samples on Mars that would be returned to Earth.
Myrick speaks very enthusiastically about the equipment he and his colleagues envisioned for the Martian sample-return mission. “It was just a great design,” he says, “which drills rock core samples, breaks them off with a capture feature, and allows for exchanging drill bits. The samples would have then been sent into orbit around Mars and snared by another spacecraft for the trip back to Earth.”
NASA agreed that Honeybee’s work for this Martian mission, as well as for the extravehicular robot and comet coring projects, was indeed outstanding, and within budget. “Unfortunately, larger budget concerns at NASA and the reassessment of program costs in the mid-1990s resulted in the cancellation of these contracts before the missions were flown,” Myrick says.
Then came the “good, fast and cheap” NASA missions that have included sending the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to Mars, and the simpler Sojourner rover before them. With Honeybee hardware on Mars at last, Myrick and several colleagues joined the Martian rover control team at the Pasadena, Calif., headquarters of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to assist with experiments on the planet. “We helped to select appropriate target rocks,” he says, “ones that we felt were especially ‘RATable.’ It was an incredibly exciting experience.”
Myrick explains that Honeybee’s biggest challenge was to switch from designing a drill capable of penetrating target areas on the Martian surface to developing a grinding mechanism for removing several millimeters of rock. “You have to deal with an entirely different set of forces and target characteristics,” he says.
“I think it’s fair to say that this has been the most fruitful interplanetary landing effort to date,” Myrick says of the mission, echoing a sentiment that’s universal among participating scientists and engineers. “It’s been amazingly successful in terms of both hardware performance and the knowledge we’ve gained. We’re getting information about Mars that’s orders of magnitude greater than what we had before Spirit and Opportunity.”
Myrick also shares the consensus that the mission’s most significant result is the mounting evidence that water was once abundant on Mars, which greatly increases the likelihood that the planet supported life in the past. And he anticipates that more sophisticated equipment from Honeybee will be aboard the roving laboratory NASA plans to launch by the end of this decade to continue the search for evidence of past life on Mars and to determine if some form of life exists there today.