Mars rover moves on Chattanooga legs

photo Curiosity Mars rover

They traveled 354 million miles through freezing space and survived 3,800-degree temperatures while crashing toward the surface four times faster than a commercial jet, but parts made in Chattanooga landed safely on Mars early Monday morning.

NASA's latest Mars rover, named Curiosity, set its six tires on the red planet's surface Sunday on a mission to discover whether life had or could exist in that climate.

But if not for the ingenuity of Ooltewah-based American Bicycle Group, the "rover" would only be a "sitter." NASA contacted the titanium bike experts to design and build metal legs allowing the car-sized machine to traverse the planet's possibly rugged terrain.

If the legs couldn't survive the extreme temperature fluctuations or hold up against the landing impact, the mission would have been botched.

"We were all kind of holding our breath last night," the group's chief executive officer Peter Hurley said Monday.

Hurley and his team let out cries of excitement right along with the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists when the landing went off without a hitch. Members of the two teams grew close since starting the project in 2007, and the mission's success was a shared victory.

"I really tip my hat to the teams at JPL. We're just really privileged to work with them," said Brad DeVaney, head of product development at American Bicycle Group and the project's leader. "We still remain in close contact with each other."

The high-end bike manufacturer caught the space engineers' eyes when NASA struggled with leg designs. One scientist's husband is an avid cyclist and fan of the titanium Litespeed bikes the company produces. He recommended researchers turn to the titanium pros.

"It was definitely stuff that we had not done to that scale before, but we knew we could handle it," Hurley said.

The company worked through and tested a variety of designs before the legs were ready. They finally settled on a titanium-aluminum-vanadium alloy able to stand up to the extreme stress tests necessary to prove the legs were spaceworthy.

The project may now be over for American Bicycle Group, but NASA left its mark on the company. The bike producer's work caught the Department of Defense's eye, and the company now produces missile wings.

But the cycling pros left their own mark on NASA. Most all of the rocket scientists involved in the program picked up the sport and would regularly ride when visiting the South.

The Chattanooga team left its mark on Mars, too. Each one of their names is etched inside the legs they helped create that have now found a permanent home among the stars.

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