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Stoneleigh-Burnham alumna’s work on Mars rover Curiosity is out of this world

Above left, an artist’s rendering of the Mars Rover Curiosity, on the surface of the Red Planet. Above right, Stoneleigh-Burnham alumna Carissa Tudyrn Weber, who now lives in Pasadena, Calif., works as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she developed technology for the Curiosity rover, which was launched in November 2011 and successfully landed on Mars in August 2012.  
NASA photo/C+N Creative photo

Above left, an artist’s rendering of the Mars Rover Curiosity, on the surface of the Red Planet. Above right, Stoneleigh-Burnham alumna Carissa Tudyrn Weber, who now lives in Pasadena, Calif., works as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she developed technology for the Curiosity rover, which was launched in November 2011 and successfully landed on Mars in August 2012. NASA photo/C+N Creative photo

GREENFIELD — Before working on the Mars Rover Curiosity that successfully touched down on the red planet in 2012, Carissa Tudryn Weber studied math and science at Stoneleigh-Burnham School and called Franklin County her home.

Eighteen years later, she is returning to her former high school to receive the 2014 Distinguished Alumna Award at Stoneleigh-Burnham School today.

Weber, 35, returns to her hometown of Sunderland after amassing a resume that is out of this world.

Weber’s work may be the stepping stone to human travel to Mars.

As an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., she developed technology for the Curiosity rover, which was launched in November 2011 and successfully landed on Mars in August 2012. Curiosity’s goals include investigating the Martian climate and geology and assessing whether the red planet has ever offered environmental conditions that could support microbial life. This is all to prepare for future human exploration, and Curiosity’s design will serve as the basis for a planned Mars 2020 rover mission.

Right now, Weber is working as an engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the mission Euclid, a telescope that will orbit between the earth and the sun and is expected to launch in 2020. She is the detector system engineer and the engineering technical authority for the Euclid Flight Instrument Detectors Group.

Euclid is significant because it is the first dark energy and dark matter mission. There are more unknowns in dark energy and dark matter, which can’t be seen, but their existence and properties are hypothesized from gravitational effects on visible matter.

Euclid is also the first European Space Agency mission with NASA collaboration.

Weber is also working on a joint mission with Purdue University to study fern growth at different gravity levels.

In 2008, Weber went after her first dream job.

Weber also applied to be an astronaut twice in 2008 and 2011. Both times she was ranked highly qualified, but not selected. The program is extremely selective. Being deemed highly qualified is a testament to her talent.

Although she has not flown to space, Weber feels she has achieved her dream regardless having her work as part of the robots that land in space.

“I feel I achieved my dream,” Weber said. “My hardware is flying through space.”

Being a mother has also changed Weber’s aspirations in space, knowing that the job requires long-term travel.

“Becoming a mother is more important to me now,” Weber said.

Today, Weber plans to advise students to make connections, get involved and network — all techniques that helped her own career.

“It’s very important in a student’s career,” Weber said. “You can be so smart in an area, but it’s important to get involved and volunteer. You can meet people that will change your life later on.”

Her time as president of the NASA Academy Alumni from 2004 to 2005 helped her network.

Weber credits her time at Stoneleigh, the all-girls college preparatory school, as helping her achieve her dreams.

“I excelled in math and science by going to Stoneleigh-Burnham,” Weber said. “It was one of the main reasons I went there.”

From a young age, Weber knew she wanted to be an astronaut. It was in an eighth grade science class at Frontier Regional School where she first became inspired by the mysteries of space.

The lesson inspired her to pursue a career as an astronaut. She decided to attend Stoneleigh-Burnham to challenge herself more in math and science to prepare for her future aspirations.

“I set my path hoping it’d work out one day,” Weber said.

Not only did Stoneleigh prepare her academically, it helped her become more well-rounded overall by the school encouraging students to play sports and participate in extracurricular activities, she said.

“Stoneleigh also prepared me, through focusing on team work and leadership skills, to be able to speak effectively,” Weber said. “It really set me up for the fundamentals of college and grad school.”

In high school, Weber also began taking scuba diving classes and flying lessons — skills needed to become an astronaut.

After graduating Stoneleigh in 1996, she went on to earn a bachelor of engineering degree in mechanical engineering at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Then, she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she earned a double master of science in both mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering in 2004.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at: kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 268 On Twitter, follow @RecorderKatMcK

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