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Wood grad designs Mars rover Lego set

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From page A4 | June 20, 2013 |

VACAVILLE — You’re never too old to play with Legos – or use them in your aerospace engineering career.

Former Vacaville resident and Will C. Wood High School graduate Stephen Pakbaz is proof.

Now a mechanical/aerospace engineer for Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., Pakbaz is awaiting the on-sale date for his latest creation using the popular plastic construction bricks: the Curiosity Mars rover.

Right after graduating from the University of California, San Diego with a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Pakbaz went to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pomona.

Among his first projects was the car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, known popularly as Curiosity.

“I worked as a mechanical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and I’m also a huge Lego fan and I worked with the rover,” Pakbaz said from his Sterling, Va., home this week.

“One of the coolest features is the ‘rocker-bogie’ suspension system that helps it keep all six wheels on the ground,” Pakbaz said. “Because it’s a $2 billion robot, they don’t let you play with it.”

That’s where his lifelong love affair with Legos came in.

“I decided to build my own little Lego model,” he said. “It thought it would be a great educational tool to show my family and friends.”

The detailed Lego model was so accurate that Pakbaz decided to submit it to Lego through a website where fans can post their designs. If a design gets 10,000 supporters, Lego will review it and it could be selected for production.

That’s what happened with Pakbaz’s design.

“I submitted it around Nov. 26, 2011,” he said. “I designed it earlier that year, sometime maybe in January or February. I submitted it right around the time the rover launched on its way to Mars.”

The timing of the submission, when the rover was in the headlines, worked out well in terms of gaining support.

“The good-timing theme continued to work out when I reached the 10,000-supporter goal shortly after the rover landed on Mars in August 2012,” Pakbaz said.

“It was great. I also did my best to help spread the news of the rover,” he said. “I made seven kits and donated them to various educational institutions, museums and charity auctions.”

Pakbaz, 29, who grew up in Vacaville and graduated from Wood in 2002, holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.

“Curiosity was the very first real spacecraft I got to work on,” he said. “It had been my goal to work specifically at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since I started high school and I was doing my own research on space travel and exploration.”

Designing spacecraft is nothing new.

“I had several graph paper notebooks filled with designs,” Pakbaz said. “I designed using Lego elements in mind. So Lego definitely contributed to the pursuit of my dream of mechanical engineering.”

Building the Rover kit was a great way to return the favor, he said.

“Before I ever wanted to be a mechanical engineer, I always wanted to be a Lego designer,” Pakbaz said. “So there’s another goal crossed off my list. I imagine that most kids who played with Legos wanted at one point to be a Lego designer.”

Pakbaz said the Curiosity rover set should go on sale in early 2014, although he said he’s received no firm date yet.

Reach Mike Corpos at 427-6979 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/mcorposdr.

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