Bill Allen in JPL's Mars Yard in early 2020. (302673)
Bill Allen in JPL’s Mars Yard in early 2020. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Raised in South Los Angeles, Bill Allen didn’t decide to become an engineer until he was a senior at Palisades High School.

“Most people knew what they wanted to do,” Allen explained, noting the school had major courses of education. “I was an English major first, but had to switch it to math and took as much math as I could to catch up.”

During one summer, as he was home from Oregon State University, a relative of his who worked at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) suggested that a summer internship there might be an interesting job for the engineering physics major.

“Once I was working there in the mailroom, I got to see what they do there and how they do it,” Allen said. “And that’s what locked me into engineering.”

Allen has worked at JPL for 37 years now and his team was instrumental in NASA’s Feb. 18 Mars 2020 Rover landing on Mars. As the mechanical systems design lead, he worked on the team which designed and built the spacecraft that transported the Perseverance Rover to the red planet.

The NASA mission is set to last one Mars year – approximately 687 Earth days.

“Now we’re designing the next rover that will go and collect the samples that this current rover is collecting,” Allen said, explaining that they are also tasked to build the lander that will make the 10-month trip to Mars, which will contain another rocket to bring the samples back to earth. Quite a long, laborious roundtrip adventure.

“It would take longer if there were people on board,” Allen said. “The more mass, the heavier it is and the more energy it takes to get there.”

And it all depends on the right time of year.

“Earth and Mars are closest every two years,” Allen said. “So that’s when we launch things.”

NASA has four scientific objectives: looking for habitability; seeking bio signatures; catching samples; and preparing for humans. Yes, the long term goal is to eventually get people to visit Mars. Allen explained that will take some work.

“One of our biggest missions is to get kids engaged in the Mars movement. The people we send to Mars are elementary school age now,” Allen said, explaining that JPL folks are currently visiting local schools to build excitement for future missions. “There’s a team at JPL that’s dedicated to outreach.”

Additionally, a live stream for students in grades 5-12 is set for 9 a.m. on March 24 online. Students will learn how NASA builds and operates rovers on Mars and will be taught how to build a rubber-band-powered rover. For more information, visit https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/events/.