When the next rover to roam Mars is launched in 2020 as planned it will roll along with some lessons learned at Walla Walla University.
Austin Nordman, who graduates from the college in December, has already interned on the rover's mission development at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Once Nordman has his bachelor's degree in engineering in hand, he'll return to JPL. But first he'll spend one more quarter in the school's engineering lab.
It's where many of the skills he'll be using at NASA have been nurtured and expanded.
Norman arrived at the university four years ago — toting his own 3-D printer, his teachers recalled — from his home in Dana Point, California.
Walla Walla University, Nordman had heard, was small enough to feel personal but big enough to have a solid education opportunity in engineering.
"It's relatively unknown," he said. "But they really do put a lot of work into an exemplary university program."
Nordman, 22, soon grew a reputation as the guy who thrived on challenges. When a sophomore engineering class assignment was on paper only and not meant to become a physical project, he decided to bring it to life.
Any other response seemed boring to Nordman, who said his earliest memory is taking toys apart long before he could reassemble them.
The student bought a cheap skateboard and attached a motor, battery and controller. The pulleys needed to run the drive belt, however, could not be found in the right shape.
Nordman simply made them on a 3-D printer and crafted his version of a motorized longboard, riding it on the sidewalk outside Kretschmar Hall, home to the university's computer science and engineering classes.
"That was pretty impressive for a sophomore," said Don Riley, an engineering professor at the university and one of Nordman's advisers.
"Oftentimes students don't have time to do things like that," he said. "If we can get 10 percent of students who have that skill set, that's a good day."
Included on a rather long list of Nordman's experiments gone right is a 3-D printer that recently caught the attention of Key Technology for its compact size, faster output and reasonable price tag.
Riley said as price and size for the technology shrank, it became feasible for colleges to buy 3-D printer kits for students, at a ratio of one to a small group of users.
When Riley shopped around two years ago, he found basic kits for $250. The machines, however, echoed the price — some of the printer parts were themselves made on a 3-D printer. The metal frame was simple extruded aluminum, and nothing on it was very stable.
"These were a reasonable success, but we felt we could make a kit ourselves at better quality," Riley said.
Enter Nordman, who said he decided last fall to take a go at making a 3-D printer students could assemble themselves — one "that's not frustrating to use, down to a price students can afford."
Giving freshmen a chance to use the commercial grade parts they'll be exposed to in future careers and putting a printer together using those precision parts is equally valuable to learning how to create on the printer, said Ralph Stirling, WWU School of Engineering project manager.
Nordman reached out to Key Technology in Walla Walla to see if there was a stronger solution than a flimsy aluminum frame for the printer body.
Engineers there suggested the stainless steel the company uses to produce food processing equipment, then donated enough of it for Nordman to create his version of a 3-D printer.
Thanks to the strength of the steel, the machine's chassis could be smaller than most kits can offer and of much higher accuracy and quality, Riley and Stirling said.
The success of the prototype prompted Key Technology to donate enough stainless steel to kit out a whole engineering class. Saving the cost of the metal allowed students to build their own printers for about $300, Stirling said.
In return, Key Technology asked for just one of Nordman's printers — about the size of a dorm microwave — in return.
It's advances in the technology, made more possible through community partnerships like this that will someday take 3-D printers out of the novelty category. In the near future, for example, the machines will be set up in home improvement stores for customers to make parts they need for repairs, Stirling said. He added that last year a student made good progress on designing a prosthetic to replace his own missing hand.
"It's really rewarding to get students excited about this stuff," he said.
Nordman needed no coaxing. As a kid, he eventually learned to put his toys back together and when he was 6 he received his first Lego Mindstorm set. Such kits contain motors, lights and sensors, allowing users to create customized, programmable robots.
Basically the Lego set acted as a geek's gateway drug, and soon enough Nordman was in serious competition mode. In 2010, he started a robotics team in his family's garage when the nearest established team was a 90-minute drive away.
The new team joined the Code Orange community group, and eventually won its regional FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — competition.
"We went from a little team in a garage to a little team in a garage that got to the top field," Nordman said.
"It's such good practice learning to work collaboratively with others," he said. "You're not only learning hard skills, but you get to learn soft skills, like interacting with others."
Knowing he's not in it alone will help when Nordman returns to JPL as part of a team hired to get a massive amount of work done before the deployment of the Mars 2020 rover.
"You're sitting in your cube and thinking, 'Wait. This is going to go to Mars,' and you have an existential crisis every day. So that's cool," Nordman said with a laugh.
He counts himself lucky.
"Most students who come out of Walla Walla University don't have a lot of real life experience," but engineering students definitely do, he said. "And that's strengthened my ability to work with other engineers."