Nohtal Partansky, 26, is my downstairs neighbor.
He’s also a mechanical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. He grew up in South Pasadena. So did he used to look at the stars as a kid?
“No, but I used to build stuff, K’Nex and Legos. [Remote control] cars, airplanes and rockets. One of my first inventions was a magnetic shoe holder,” he said. “I liked being outdoors. But it was never, ‘Look at the trees cause they’re pretty.’ It was, ‘Look at those trees cause they’re like a fractal!’
“When you like to build things, you like to know how things work,” he continued. “Science is just the description of how nature works. I’d watch Bill Nye and ‘The Magic School Bus’ [and it] made sense. I’d look at a tree and see how it made sense.”
At first, he wanted to be a doctor, like his mother. “But at some point I realized I didn’t want to help some guy who’s been smoking for 20 years with his lung cancer. Building was more interesting.”
Partansky’s last three years of high school were spent at Ribet Academy. “You know, that place off the 2 that looks like a prison. I’m half Mexican and half white so I didn’t really fit in with either of those groups.”
At UC Davis, he saw his friends doing machine shop. One of them made a gyro.
“That was cool. So I decided to major in mechanical engineering,” he said. “An engineer is just someone who builds. If you’re a builder and you like science, you’re an engineer. Engineering is simply the act of building with quantitative evidence. In art, you build with your intuition, feeling, taste. In engineering, you build with data, with numbers. You still have taste and flavor, but you’re driven by physical phenomenon.”
Partansky attended UC Davis as an undergrad. “It took me a year or so to get good at math, at which point everything got a lot easier.”
He chose biochemical engineering as his major. But he’d flown model airplanes as a kid and he noticed all the electives he wanted to take were airplane-related.
“All my friends were like, ‘Dude, you should double major!’ So I double majored in aerospace engineering, with a minor in music, so I didn’t have to give up my guitar.”
From there Partansky went to Georgia Tech on a scholarship and earned a master’s in aerospace engineering. And from there, he got recruited to JPL.
“I’m 100 percent sure the reason they took me without having done an internship was that in graduate school, I designed, built, manufactured and marketed my own 3-D printer for engineers and artists,” he said. “There are still Lathon printers in the U.S. and Canada.”
Only 10,000 or so people work at NASA nationwide, 5,700 of them at JPL. Partansky is assigned to a project called the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE).
“In the Matt Damon movie ‘The Martian,’ there’s a device called ‘The Oxygenator’ that allows Mark Watney to breathe. That’s basically my project: the technology demonstration of a device that can take in the atmosphere of Mars and produce oxygen for people to breathe, or for rocket fuel,” he explained.
“Our goal is to demonstrate that the device can work on the surface of Mars,” he added. “Once we do that, we can send, say, 50 of them, and have them produce a bunch of oxygen before we get there.”
The device will be attached to a robot, a rover about the size of a dining room table, that will go to Mars in 2020.
“I do lots of 3-D modeling, data analysis, design work. Presentations. Or we’ll do testing where the device is shaken or shocked to simulate rocket conditions,” Partansky said. “It’ll become more hands-on in a year and a half: building stuff, attaching it to a big robot, testing. Thirty or so of us are working on the MOXIE project if you count everyone: mechanical engineers, scientists, managers.”
Four or five robots, all from JPL, are on Mars already. Working at JPL is great, he said. It also comes to seem normal.
“But last year I went to Hawaii, the big island, with some JPL friends. One night we checked out an active lava flow. By the time we walked back it was 10 p.m. There’s no light pollution there. You could see the Milky Way galaxy.
“Nothing,” he continued, “is more fun than walking four miles in pitch-black darkness with a few NASA engineers. People were pointing out, ‘Oh man, look: there’s Orion!’ or ‘Oh man, look that’s [the International Space Station].’
“In summer Mars is pretty low in the sky, especially in Hawaii. And sure enough, it was red. A glowing brown-red — and for the first time it hit me. I’d never put things in perspective,” said Partansky. “Someday, the things I’m building are going to be on that little dot, that little red star in the distance.
“I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s crazy!’”
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.