Growing up in Sandusky, Bill Reed said he never imagined he'd have a hand in creating the robotic arms that are helping explore the surface of Mars.
Reed, a 1990 graduate of Sandusky High School, is the machine shop supervisor at the California-based firm that designed and built the robotic arm on the Phoenix Mars Lander scheduled to land on the Martian surface in about two weeks. Reed was also the lead machinist on the robotic arms for the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been operating on Mars since January 2004.
"I think in a lot of ways I kind of got lucky," Reed said.
He said that while his upbringing was far from privileged, his parents instilled in him a work ethic that has taken him far.
"My mother is a Korean immigrant who never really had a formal education ... my father was a basic factory worker at Sandusky Plastics," Reed said. "I wanted to go out and make my way."
After graduating from high school, Reed enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where he was trained as a machinist and welder. He spent two years in Japan before being stationed at California's Edwards Air Force Base in 1993. When Reed left the military in 1997 to pursue a civilian aerospace career, he continued to work as a prototype machinist working on rocket and satellite propulsion at the Air Force research laboratory. He began his career with Alliance Space Systems in 2001.
Though Reed has lived in California for more than 10 years, he still has close ties to Sandusky as his mother and two brothers still live in the area.
Reed said he took the small machine shop classes available at Adams Junior High and Jackson Junior High in Sandusky. While a student at Sandusky High School, he took courses in vocational electronics.
Since there has been a trend toward college preparatory work and undergraduate degrees during the last decade, Reed said skilled machinists and other skilled trades are in especially high demand.
"We're experiencing a huge skilled trade kind of 'brain drain'," Reed said. "We're having a desperately hard time finding mechanical engineers, electrical engineers... We just can't find people with the skills that we need."
Reed said that the old-time image of a machinist up to his elbows in grease working in a shop all day is far outdated.
"The majority of my job is on the computer," Reed said. "It's very high-tech."
Reed said money isn't everything, but if someone can make money doing something they love, that's the perfect equation.
The Phoenix Mars Lander launched on Aug. 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It is now traveling 171 million miles to Mars and is expected to touch down on the Martian surface May 25.
"The Phoenix Mars Lander will investigate a site in the far north of Mars. The mission will seek to answer questions about that part of Mars and help resolve broader questions about the planet," according to information provided by NASA. "The key questions Phoenix will address concern water and conditions that could support life."
Examining the water found in the icy layers of Mars will enable scientists to answer key questions about whether Mars has ever supported life and if humans should prepare to explore Mars.
The robotic arm will allow Phoenix to explore layers of soil and use instruments on the spacecraft deck to analyze the ice and soil samples.
"The arm will dig trenches, position arm-mounted tools for studying the soil in place, and deliver scooped-up samples to other instruments," according to information provided by NASA.
Reed said that each robotic instrument is designed specifically for the requirements of a particular mission.
"Once it's launched, it's done..." Reed said.
Every component of the robotic arm had to be designed and fabricated for the extremely harsh conditions of the Martian surface.
The titanium and aluminum parts of the equipment had to be accurate within .0001, or one-thirtieth of a human hair.
While it is a little nerve-wracking, Reed said that he's excited for the upcoming Phoenix landing.
"All in all, it's really a great feeling," he said.