Michigan engineer plays role in Mars rover Curiosity

Man is now helping NASA with its Destiny project

By John Mulcahy
The Daily Telegram (Adrian)

ADRIAN, Mich. (AP) — People in southern Michigan looking at images of Mars sent to earth from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity might be interested to know that the cables and electronic control board for the camera taking those photos were designed by an Adrian native.

“Everything that we see through the rover’s (camera) comes from the camera that we designed in 2003,” said Thomas Restis, owner of Dynamic Design International in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Restis, who graduated from Adrian High School in 1979, has played a role in the Mars rover program since its first Mars probe in 1997.

At the time, Restis was engineering manager for a company called Pioneer Circuits Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif. There, he helped design an electronic module called the rigid flex cable used in the first rover. Pioneer also manufactured the cable.

Unlike the round cables that you might find in your car, flex cable is flat and can be printed or etched like an electronic circuit board.

The cables used on the rover also are tested at extremely low temperatures to assure that they will continue to function in space.

In 1999, Restis left Pioneer Circuits and started Dynamic Design International, where in 2000 he started helping NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., with the next set of rovers, called Spirit and Opportunity.

Restis’ company designed the routing for the flex cabling for the motor that made the rover able to move; designed cabling for the rover’s robotic arm and its “hazard” camera; and designed the cables and electronic control board for the camera that provided the high-resolution, color, panoramic views of the surface of Mars.

Restis’ company also manufactured the cables for the mobility motor, hazard camera, panoramic camera, robotic arm and tools at the tip of the robotic arm.
“That was very prestigious, for us to get the articulating arm,” Restis said.

Spirit and Opportunity launched in 2003 and landed on Mars in 2004.

Restis put his own company on hold in 2005 and went to work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There, he helped select materials for, route and test the flex cabling in the most recent rover. The same camera he helped design in 2003 is used on the current rover.

Restis also did three electronic boards for the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter, launched in 2005 and still circling Mars. The orbiter was used to convey the first photos from the Curiosity rover.

Restis resigned from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the end of 2007 and went back to his own company, where he is once again helping NASA, this time with with its Destiny project, which among other things will be used to study global warming and its effects on the planet.

Restis’ education is vocational, including at a technical institute in Ann Arbor and at ITT Technical Institute in California after a tour in the Air Force. Working with the high-powered intellects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is rewarding, and he is treated as an expert in his field, he said.

“It’s very pleasing, it’s really a pleasure,” Restis said. “I can’t say enough for the folks over there and how they extend themselves to people who have had less education and less opportunity.”

Restis was born and raised in Adrian and attended Drager Middle School and Adrian High School. He studied welding at what is now the Lenawee Intermediate School District Tech Center. From seventh through 11th grade he was a wrestler and won 340 consecutive matches.

Restis still visits Adrian, where he has many family members, including his mother, Garnetta Restis Parker.

“He always was interested in understanding how things work,” Parker said. The family thinks his achievements are “wonderful,” she said.

Restis credits his grandfather, Frank Christian Ehinger, an “inventive” structural engineer, with his interest in technology.

“It’s incredible,” Restis said reflecting on his own involvement in the Mars rover programs.


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