NASA’s Adam Steltzner discusses the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity at the Opening General Session of AIHce 2016.
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“Great Works” Abound at AIHce 2016
Keynoters and Lecturers Provide Lessons in Innovation
Innovation and risk: you can’t have the first without the second. Whether you’re landing a spacecraft on another planet, protecting workers from exposure to nanomaterials, or launching a new initiative to train occupational hygiene practitioners, you’re grappling with the paradox that no progress is possible without risk, that risk is inherent in any worthwhile endeavor. In one way or another, these ideas informed the keynote sessions and lectures at AIHce 2016 in Baltimore, Md., where thousands of professionals gathered May 21–26 for the largest annual conference devoted to occupational health and safety.

THE ULTIMATE TOOL Landing a machine the size of a car on Mars requires some novel equipment. The world’s largest supersonic parachute, impressive as it sounds, isn’t enough. You also need a rocket-powered, hovering platform that unspools its tethers and places your vehicle just so on the red dust. But according to Adam Steltzner, the NASA engineer whose team designed and built the systems that landed the Mars rover Curiosity on the Red Planet in 2012, the most important thing you need is, well, curiosity. “It really is the ultimate tool in solving problems,” Steltzner told attendees at the AIHce 2016 Opening General Session. Steltzner, whose curiosity about the movement of the stars across the night sky inspired him to pursue a career in science, described how his team devised the “Sky Crane” maneuver—a new landing technique featuring that hovering platform—during a two-day brainstorming session at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). At that meeting, Steltzner said, he “learned the importance of the separation of ideas from the people who hold them.” This approach allowed the experts present to vigorously challenge each other’s ideas while maintaining their mutual respect. If they hadn’t applied that technique at the brainstorming session, Steltzner said, “we probably would have come out with the same ideas we went in with.” What they came out with instead was an entirely new way to land a rover. Previous systems had relied on airbags or mechanical legs, but neither option was feasible for the heavier Curiosity. The Sky Crane was so unorthodox that Steltzner worried how it would be perceived. He comforted himself with the thought that “great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset.” On August 6, 2012, the world learned that Sky Crane was indeed great work. After a flawless landing, Curiosity went about its job of investigating the possibility that Mars was once habitable. It eventually found evidence that the planet’s ancient aqueous environment could have supported life, though an answer to the question of whether living things once walked, crawled, or swam on Mars remains elusive. It’s a question Steltzner hopes to help answer one day. Already, he and a team are working on a forthcoming NASA mission to Mars, a project that will bring samples of the Red Planet back to Earth. “With a culture of collaboration and our native human curiosity alive in us, there is very little human life cannot accomplish,” Steltzner said. “Where will your curiosity next take you?”

TIME TO ACT During the Henry F. Smyth, Jr. Award Lecture on May 23, Michael Ellenbecker, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, discussed the uncertain toxicology surrounding engineered nanomaterials and the need to protect people and the environment. Although occupational exposures are well known, Ellenbecker said, “In some respects, our field is not paying enough attention to the hazards of nanomaterials.” Of special concern are carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Workers may be exposed to CNTs in research and development labs and in production settings, where the engineered nanomaterials are incorporated into products ranging from small, advanced memory devices to larger items like automobile bumpers. Ellenbecker urged greater attention to CNTs, given their potential to cause mesothelioma. Safety data sheets for CNTs, which are supposed to communicate their potential hazards, have been “seriously deficient,” he said. While Ellenbecker is skeptical that nano-specific regulations will be promulgated anytime soon, he expressed hope that governments could reach agreement on a standard protocol for evaluating exposures to engineered nanoparticles, including the consistent development of OELs. Today, vast differences exist between exposure levels from one country to the next. The proposed NIOSH recommended exposure limit (REL) of 1 μg/m3 of respirable elemental carbon, for example, differs from the comparable European Union value by a factor of 460,000.
“Industry’s going ahead whether we’re worried or not,” Ellenbecker said. “We cannot wait for occupational exposure limits before taking action. The time to act is now.”