ECU alumnus makes his mark on Mars

In a manner of speaking, purple and gold are visiting the red planet.

Jackson Tucker, an East Carolina University alumnus, had a hand in designing some of the components NASA’s Perseverance rover is using to explore Mars.

Tucker, who graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical design from the Department of Technology Systems, is a designer for the Sierra Nevada Corporation in Durham. SNC provided eight unique gearmotor components used in 17 applications of the Mars rover. The components are part of the craft’s robotic arm, turret coring drill and sample caching assembly.

Jackson Tucker, a 2014 East Carolina University graduate in mechanical design, played a role in designing components for the Perseverance Mars rover as part of the Sierra Nevada Corporation in Durham. (Contributed photo)

“I was lucky to work on the design team for the eight components we supplied to NASA for the rover,” Tucker said. “I was primarily involved in the design of the two different electric motors that were used to drive the gearbox components. I was tasked with generating 3D models and 2D drawings for our designs, starting in the prototype phase, all the way though the development of the flight products and other hardware needed during the assembly, and testing of our deliverables. But also, as schedule allowed or demanded, I worked alongside another designer to create and design components for the gearboxes as well.”

Perseverance launched on July 30, 2020. According to NASA, it was designed to provide a better understanding of the geology of Mars and to seek signs of ancient life. It will collect and store rock and soil samples that could be returned to Earth in the future, and test new technology that will benefit future robotic and perhaps human exploration of Mars. It will also send back plenty of images of the planet.

The rover successfully landed on Mars on Feb. 18, setting off a joyous celebration among NASA personnel, video of which was featured on national news broadcasts. Tucker celebrated as well.

“I was relieved and excited,” he said. “The components I worked on weren’t used until the rover had safely landed, so it’s great knowing that it successfully traveled and descended to the Martian surface. Now that it’s safely on Mars, our components can get to work helping take soil samples and looking for previous signs of life.”

Tucker takes great pride in knowing something he helped design is exploring the universe.

This is the first high-resolution, color image to be sent back by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Feb. 18. (NASA photo)

“It’s unreal. Seven or more years ago when I was at ECU, I never thought I’d be a part of anything like this,” he said. “Our team does great work, and we’ve been a part of some exciting missions. Knowing we contribute to that kind of exploration and investigation really means something and adds a little extra spark to keep what we do exciting.”

With headquarters in Nevada but with facilities spread throughout various parts of the country, SNC provides advanced engineering technology in space systems, commercial business and national security and defense.

“Our office specializes in space mechanisms for satellites and other spacecraft,” Tucker said. “As a designer, we collaborate with engineers to develop product designs, generate 3D computer-aided models and drawings of the necessary parts and assemblies, and perform analytical tasks such as tolerance analysis and bill of materials compilation and organization. After the product design phase, we also work with our manufacturing and test departments to develop the needed tooling and fixturing to help build and test our components.”

Tucker isn’t the only Pirate representing the purple and gold in his office full of N.C. State red.

“Two of our other designers graduated from the ECU design program,” he said. “The skills we’ve learned at ECU are a perfect fit for our roles within SNC and the kinds of mechanisms we build. We all have a similar background and skillset, so we sort of all speak the same language. It’s been great seeing the other guys help spread a positive image of ECU and what the design program has to offer. Of course being in the Triangle, there’s no shortage of N.C. State grads, but we’re holding our own and showing them what the Pirates bring to the table.”

Tucker said attending ECU was a “no brainer.” His parents went to ECU and he grew up in Greenville before his family moved to the Raleigh area when he was 14. Plus his grandfather, Dr. James H. Tucker, served as an ECU administrator for more than 24 years, retiring as the dean of student affairs in 1979.

This image shows Perseverance landing on Mars. (NASA photo)

“Like most Pirates, I love ECU football. Cheering on the Pirates in Dowdy-Ficklen has been and still is one of my favorite past times,” he said. “Also, I have great memories of just being on campus. At that point in time, there was nowhere else I’d rather be. There’s just something special about being part of a group of likeminded people all working toward the same goal that really stuck with me.”

He said one thing that stood out to him was how each professor in the Department of Technology Systems made classes applicable to the real world. He has fond memories of Dr. Ranjeet Agarwala’s rapid prototype class.

“The first time we were able to take our 3D designs from the computer screen to real life using the 3D printers really stuck with me, and to this day, I still love seeing my designs come to life,” Tucker said. “Also, Mike Hicks’ jig and fixture design class has proven to be one of the most beneficial classes from my time at ECU. I use the principles he taught daily, and the values of that class continue to be relevant years down the road.”

And now as an alumnus, Tucker passes on the lessons he’s learned to today’s Pirates.

“Use the resources you have at your disposal,” he said. “Whether it’s class work or in your career, there’s an abundance of resources available to help get the job done. Ask questions, talk with others, research. There’s going to be challenges and obstacles almost every step of the way, so make the most of what’s there to help.”