Mars Rover Landscape and Mission Control

The manager of Cahners Computer Place obtained the use of a model Mars Rover that could analyze its environment, travel under computer control, and provided a robot’s eye view for visitors to observe.  Very neat!  So, naturally, it was decided to make a “crater” in which the little rover (about the size of a desktop printer) could display its roving prowess.  The crater, of course, needed its own environment, and that’s where I came in.

I made the exterior of brushed aluminum laminate in a simple box configuration.  There was a temptation to make the entire display round, but that would have added tremendous amount of expense, and really, I thought, would not have looked good in the space.  In order to keep the younger visitors at bay yet still provide good viewing, I decided to make the upper wall of the container out of Plexiglas.  I was determined, however, to not have any sort of railing around the top of the container.  I wanted the Plexi to emerge from the container and just stop.  To achieve this, I had to use ¾ Plexi (very expensive) and carefully router, scrape, and polish the edges so as to eliminate sharp corners.  Further, the Plexi is not just that which can be seen above the solid walls; it extends over a foot into the meat of the container and is bolted in place low in the wall to provide structural integrity.  Finally, the end of the container next to the column needed to be higher than the rest of the display, so we decided to take advantage of this fact and have a real Mars landscape obtained from NASA’s rover photos.  Again, I was determined that the mural have no upper framework to sharply demarcate it from the rest of the room.  I constructed a light box with a curved top and we had the Marsscape printed onto a piece of ½ inch white Plexi that rose ½ inch above the housing.  Lit from behind, it provides a compelling background for the crater.  Also, the lower edges of the container also have Marsscapes.  The panel opposite the light box has a small surprise for those willing to look.  I’ll never tell.

I also built a pint-sized Mission Control to go with the Mars Yard.

The technical challenges with this project were few. Basically, I had to cram enough exhibit into too little exhibit space, a fairly common theme in my work.  I needed to fit three consoles into a very small, high-traffic area. This technical problem led to the other technical problem: non-right-angle cabinetry. The major problem, though, was a design issue: how to make a convincing mission control with only a few consoles and an overhead display.

Since I needed to fit three consoles into a small, high-traffic area occupied mostly by a structural column, I decided to wrap the consoles around the column.  This allowed me to create a sort of spaceship bridge appearance, which seemed to go well with the theme of the exhibit. After viewing many photos of control rooms at JPL, Houston, and other places, I resisted the urge to add too much embellishment.  These places were bare-bones control rooms.  And yet I needed to ensure that the consoles had a technical look to them.  For the body of the consoles, I made angular cabinets for the computers that drive the monitors and overhead displays and covered them in brushed-aluminum laminate.  Further, I constructed the front of the cabinets so that they had a modular appearance, and assembled them with exposed hex-head bolts.  I put rack handles on either side of the monitors to further enhance the modular, technical look.  (These handles are actually functional since the panel holding the monitor can be lifted out for easy maintenance.)  As any cabinet maker will tell you, oblique angles add a great deal of construction time (especially if said cabinets are to be laminated), but I think the payoff was worth it.  I also wanted to connect this aspect of the exhibit with the Mars Rover Yard on the other side of the column.  I decide that just a little visual tie-in was enough and so made the work surfaces of the consoles with rust-red laminate, which closely parallels the appearance of the faux Martian surface in the Mars Yard.  Finally, I constructed the consoles for the overhead monitors. These were necessarily large, and I was worried that they would over power the exhibit in what is quite a small space.  When the overhead console was finished in the shop and temporarily mounted for a test assembly, they looked HUGE!  Luckily, due to the black laminate which covered them, when they were mounted in the dimly-lit space, they tended to disappear into the background. All that is conspicuous is the monitors themselves.  I am pleased with the overall appearance.