A sketch of SMC student Michael Maylahn's Mars rover. (photo by Photo Courtesy Santa Monica College)

DOWNTOWN — Santa Monica College student Michael Maylahn shot for Mars and reached the stars.

Maylahn recently led a team of community college engineering students from throughout the nation in a competition to create a prototype Mars rover at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. His team won first prize, beating out three other teams.

“I was ecstatic,” Maylahn, a mechanical engineering major with an A-minus average, said. “It was an amazing opportunity.”

A second-year student, Maylahn was recommended by English professor Kevin Menton to participate in the project, in which just 89 students out of hundreds of applicants across the country were accepted into NASA’s National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program. To be accepted, he had to complete a rigorous months-long application process.

To qualify, Maylahn spent about 800 hours last summer completing four web-based research assignments in which he drew up a plan for a hypothetical robotics mission to Mars — in addition to his coursework and full-time job.

His plan included a financial proposal, timeline, sketch of the rover, an objectives abstract and a proposal outlining every aspect of the mission, including how the rover would get to Mars, how it would communicate with Earth, what scientific equipment would be needed for testing and analysis, and how it would be navigated. It was accepted, and he was flown to Alabama for the three-day, hands-on experience at the NASA center in the fall. (Half the students accepted into the program were sent to compete at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.)

At the space flight center, he and his team were given 30 hours to create a business model for a robotics firm that would hypothetically create and sell a Mars rover to NASA for a mission. Teams were also given a box of robotics parts to build the rover.

Maylahn said he tapped into his leadership abilities to encourage team bonding, which is what he believes gave his team the edge to win the competition.

Originally from Sarasota Springs in upstate New York, Maylahn moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and enrolled at SMC.

“SMC has been an amazing way for me to receive a top-notch education with quality professors at a ridiculously low price,” he said. “The level of rigor of my classes is equivalent to that at UCLA and other great schools, yet I pay $20,000 less.”

Maylahn has his eye on transferring to a top engineering school such as Caltech, Harvey Mudd College, UCLA or Cal Poly Pomona.

“I got a good glimpse of what I want to do with my life,” he said of his experience at NASA. “I want to work in robotics, and my ultimate dream is to own a robotics company.”


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