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Mechanical Mission

Above, Mars Robotics team members Lindsey Gourash, 15, and Mitchell Kulfan, 14, work on the prototype designs for this year's competition robot. Below, Jacob Noe, 12, works on a prototype shooting mechanism for this year's Mars Robotics Team robot.
Mars robotics students launch effort

“The first human beings to land on Mars should not come back to Earth. They should be the beginning of a buildup of a colony/settlement. I call it a 'permanence.'”

Those words are credited to Buzz Aldrin, former astronaut and second man to walk on the moon, in a 2014 interview he did for Reddit, a discussion website.

Aldrin was discussing how the idea of a Mars landing conducted by a member of the private sector conflicted with his conviction that Mars could be settled by the first people who land there.

The cost of private exploration alone would dissuade any permanent venture, according to Aldrin.

The mission to understand Mars might be more successful if the U.S. government was behind it, or if it started a little closer to home.

That's where the Mars Robotics Association comes in.

The NASA Mars Exploration Program launched the Mars rover Perseverance on July 30. One of Perseverance's missions is to identify potential microbial life on Mars. It should land Feb. 18, 2021.In September, students in the Mars Robotics Association launched a different sort of mission: plans for the proposed Mars Discovery Center in the borough.“At first, we needed a space to work,” said Zoey Miller, a high school sophomore who lives in Valencia and coordinated the center presentation. “(But) this could be a community space.”Mars borough has been working to build a public Mars/NASA education facility for years.In 2019, the borough applied for a $2.25 million Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant to go toward the center as well as the town's Downtown Destination Project. The venture proved fruitful.“We have pending a $1 million RACP grant to use towards initial construction of the center,” said Gregg Hartung, Mars mayor. “We are in conversations with (groups for) potential dollars from both public and private sources.”NASA has been involved with the concept of a discovery center from almost the beginning. Aside from providing a local location for STEAM education, the center will possibly include NASA resources such as speakers and displays.“Students presenting these concepts puts an immediate perspective on the discovery center,” said Jeff Beckstead, coach of the Mars Robotics Association.That's why the robotics students presented their 14-page proposal to about 30 people via Zoom in September — including representatives from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, PPG and NASA.

Zoey, who attends Shady Side Academy, has been part of the robotics association for three or four years.When the association was first approached by Hartung and Beckstead to generate some ideas for the center, she said students jumped at the idea.The group has had to move many times in the past few months to have space to practice, according to Zoey. “Our goal is to have a space for us,” Zoey said, “but also for other teams to use it as well.”The association participates in FIRST competitions, an international youth program introducing students to robotics and marketing.The discovery center presentation included information gathered via interviews with five teams from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.The conclusion? The association needs at least one gym to prepare for FIRST competitions. Two are ideal for becoming a regional FIRST venue that could attract out-of-state groups.“We're all thinking big,” Zoey said. “We're all dreaming big.”Working with a core group of 10 robotics students, Zoey said the association prepared three different levels of plans for sections of the center: bare necessities, moderate funding and “dream space.”At a minimum, for example, the robotic machine shop needs a 3D printer. In a dream world, it would have a plasma cutter.“The students went beyond expectations,” Beckstead said. “It not only showed the robotic/technical skills of the group, but also the artistic/creativity skills.”

Mars Borough Council is looking into buying property for the center as part of the town's revitalization. Hartung said the center would fit well into the county's Gateway 228 project.“Coming out of the current pandemic to have this center starting to be built will mean new jobs,” Hartung said. “It fits with all the growth and the emphasis on education.”Originally, the RACP grant needed to be used by the end of 2020 for council to retain the full amount.That deadline has been extended to February 2021, according to Hartung. He said council may be seeking a second extension, due to the uncertainty of the pandemic.As hard as the students are working now to support the borough's discovery center endeavors, Zoey said they know they're preparing for future generations to take the helm.“It's a long way in the future,” Zoey said. “The thought that we might inspire kids ... We're thankful for this.”The association will offer the borough support going forward, according to Beckstead. The students have been asked to take their presentation “on the road” and generate public and private interest.Zoey said she and her teammates want to stay in touch with the project as much as possible.“We do want to get involved with the architects,” Zoey said. “We have a lot of big ideas.”

Jacob Noe, 12, works on a prototype shooting mechanism for this year's Mars Robotics Team robot.
Rohan Cherlakola, left, and Dinuk Dealmeida, both 14, work on an intake design for this year's prototype.
Jacob Noe, second from left, and Nathan Hale work on a robot prototype shooting arm device with team coach Jeff Beckstead advising.

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