National Guard Joins Mars Rover Team on Airdrop Problems

From left, Col. Edward Black, Dr. Don Erbschloe and Dr. Adam Steltzner of NASA share ideas Nov. 6, 2012, at the AATTC in St. Joseph, Mo. Steltzner joined with Air Mobility experts from across the Air Force to consider problems in airdrops. (Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael Crane)

The phase lead and development manager for the Entry Descent and Landing on the Mars Science Laboratory Project met with Air Mobility experts from across the Air Force.

Dr. Adam Steltzner is among the top NASA engineers in the nation, and he was invited to the 139th Airlift Wing, Missouri Air National Guard Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Center (AATTC) on Rosecrans Air National Guard Base to speak about airdrop missions during their annual Mobility Air Force Tactics Review Board.

His knowledge and accomplishments in airdrop are renowned. In August, he headed the team that successfully landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars.

Although worlds apart, Air Mobility officials believe that problem solving with NASA may help improve their airdrop missions on Earth, and vice versa.

“We were invited to come out and speak with the airdrop guys about our precision airdrop … a little bit different, a different planet, but it has some opportunities,” Steltzner said.

More than 100 active duty, Guard and Reserve Command members from the mobility air force community attended the conference. Officials said they represented all the tactics professionals and air mobility experts across all mobility aircraft platforms including the airdrop mission set.

Improving Air Force aerial delivery procedures and equipment was their goal, said Col. Edward Black, commander of the AATTC. “Sharing information with other government agencies is one avenue to ensure airdrop missions are as accurate and cost effective as possible,” he said.

“We are hoping to gather some of their information and be able to share some stories, share some handshakes and maybe learn a little something from the big brains at the jet propulsion laboratory,” Black said.

In air mobility, it’s not just delivering military personnel and cargo that helps secure the nation’s interests; it’s delivering it to the right forces in the right spot at the right time. And that’s not so easy in combat areas where pinpoint accuracy and safety of personnel is of primary concern.

Steltzner explained that his NASA team and the Air Force share similar problems, even millions of miles away, like uncertainty in weather and aerodynamics.

“Your problems are fascinating, and I am really interested in them, and evidently some of the guys are really interested in the landings on Mars,” he said.

People on Earth were enthralled with Curiosity’s highly complex landing, said Dr. Don Erbschloe, chief scientist for Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base.

“I watched that and thought, ‘that’s precision airdrop, that’s what we do,’” said Erbschloe, who also attended the conference.

Speaking with the scientists and engineers just made sense, he said.

“I am thrilled by the fact that they were able to join us and sit down and talk with the guys who do this on a daily basis,” Erbschloe said. “We want to improve airdrop, whether it’s on the surface of the Earth or the surface of another planet.”

Steltzner learned about the latest Air Force airdrop tactic on Earth: Low Cost, Low Altitude (LCLA) aerial delivery. That tactic doubles the amount of cargo that can be airdropped with the highest accuracy rate to date while reducing the risk and burden on ground forces.

The signature “trash bag” black parachutes of LCLA are another benefit. They are disposable and cheap, as the chutes are 25 percent the cost of a reusable chute. Their single use also reduces the burden of carrying used chutes for ground troops.

Lt. Col. Christopher Parker, the Air Mobility Command detachment commander here, said the Center’s development division pioneered this and many other tactics.

Parker said the NASA team is a valuable addition to the countless relationships made here that advance air mobility worldwide, and now may be on other planets.

“We’re proud to say the partnerships that are represented here at the Center have made LCLA and many other concepts a reality as we continue to evolve procedures that allow warfighters to prevail,” said Parker.

By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
139th Airlift Wing,


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