PRISM Magazine - Exploring the future of engineering education
briefings - space

Photo courtesy of NASA Women Invade Mars

Forget Venus. a team of women scientists are setting their sights—and probes—on Mars.

Three women scientists are heading a groundbreaking NASA mission to explore the subsurface of Mars. Brand new technology developed by the team and set to arrive on the red planet in December will allow grapefruit-size microprobes to slam into Mars at 400 miles per hour and penetrate up to six feet.

The microprobes, known as Deep Space-2, are designed to analyze the rocky composition of the soil and determine if there is water. They will also measure temperature, then transmit the information by radio to the Mars Global Surveyor, which relays the data back to earth.

"The Mars microprobe will give us a glimpse of the subsurface of Mars, which in many ways is a window into the planet's history," explains Suzanne Smrekar, project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

With its relatively small staff, peaking at 55 scientists, and modest budget of $29.2 million, the mission's team is indicative of NASA's new streamlined approach to space exploration. It is also the first time in NASA history that women hold all the top posts in a space mission: project manager, scientist, and engineer. What's more, it's a young team: the chief mission engineer, Kari Lewis, is 25 years old, while both project manager Sarah Gavit, an aeronautical and astronautical engineer, and Smrekar are 37 years old.

The team's composition shouldn't come as a surprise, though, since women make up 16 percent of JPL's technical workforce. In contrast, only 5 percent of Ph.D. engineers are women, according to the National Science Foundation.

Still, "the fact that we are women hasn't made a difference," Lewis told the New York Times , "It's not an issue here. But it's good that young girls see that engineering and technical fields are wide open to women."

briefings - internet


A government search engine on the World Wide Web that was launched last spring was promptly pulled offline only hours later.

The Internet search-and-retrieval service, sponsored by the Commerce Department's National Technical Information Service (NTIS) and developed by Northern Light Technology, a private company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rankled some over its pricing. The company charges $5 a day and $250 a year for individual users to access more than 20,000 government Web sites representing nearly four million Web pages. But government officials reportedly took exception to the idea of users having to pay such fees to access many government publications that are free elsewhere on the Web.

"What we charge for is helping you find the document you need," explained Northern Light CEO David Seuss. "That's what's different from other services." The site,, was back up and running by June, but without the Commerce Department's backing.

Ironically, the government's own federal document search engine, run by NTIS, charges substantially more for services similar to what Northern Light offers. Individual day passes to, the second most heavily trafficked federal Internet site, cost $15, while yearly subscriptions go as high as $1,995 for premium services.

At that price, it seems the government couldn't afford the competition.

briefings - obituary

Rep. George Brown Rep. George Brown Dies at 79

Rep. George Brown (D-CA), one of Congress's leading supporters of science and space exploration, died on July 16 from heart surgery complications. The 79-year-old legislator served 18 terms in the House, and was the senior Democrat on the House Science Committee.

Brown was first elected in 1962, eventually rising to chair of the Science Committee. An energetic proponent of environmental preservation and investment in science and technology, Brown championed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Technology Assessment in the early 1970s.

"The university engineering community has lost a congressional champion, a man of vision, and a good friend," said ASEE Engineering Deans Council Chair Steve Director.

Called the "wise man of science" by National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell, Brown led efforts in both the mid-1960s and the 1980s to restructure and strengthen NSF, giving the agency more active roles in engineering and education.

"I've thought that science could be the basis for a better world," Brown said in a New York Times article earlier this year, "and that's what I've been trying to do all these years."


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