Interview With Perijove, Creator of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover

If you haven’t heard by now, the results are in and the next LEGO CUUSOO set to be released is the 21104 Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover submitted by Stephen Pakbaz, or Perijove as he’s known on LEGO CUUSOO. The set wouldn’t be available until 2014, but you can get an insider scoop on the model by getting to know its creator.

Stephen Pakbaz's original project design

Stephen Pakbaz’s original project design (Note the final product is subject to change).

Sara Moore:  How long have you been building with LEGO® bricks?

One of Stephen's sketchesStephen Pakbaz: I have been building with LEGO bricks since before I can remember, beginning with LEGO DUPLO sets.  The earliest set I can recall was the LEGO DUPLO 2700 Freight Train.  Later, I had a big red brick-shaped bucket full of basic bricks.  My first LEGO System set was the 6833 Beacon Tracer from the M-Tron theme that I received on my sixth birthday.  I still have it on display in my LEGO room.  In middle school, I began to acquire sets with my allowance, expanding my collection and creating more complex models.  In high school, I enjoyed learning about space exploration by designing my own concepts for manned missions to the moons of Jupiter.  I used graph paper notebooks to sketch out LEGO models of these spaceships.  To this day, I often use graph paper as part of my design process when developing my next LEGO creation.

SM:  What inspired you to build The Mars Science Curiosity Rover and put it on LEGO CUUSOO?

SP:  When I built this model, I was working on designing some small parts and performing tests on the real Curiosity rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  It was my first real job as a Mechanical Engineer and the first spacecraft I worked on.  My favorite mechanism on the rover is the offset-differential rocker-bogie suspension system, which allows the rover to stay balanced and keep all six wheels on the ground as it travels over the rough Martian terrain.  Since the real rover was still under construction, there weren’t any toys or models yet.  Taking the real rover out for a joyride was definitely not an option, so I decided to build my own out of LEGO bricks.  I discovered that it was also a useful tool for explaining the features of the rover and demonstrating how it worked to friends and family.

After the LEGO model was completed, I brought it to my first meeting at the LEGO Users Group Of Los Angeles (LUGOLA), which is one of the many fan clubs, located around the world, that regularly meet to share models and participate in various LEGO displays and community events.  The other members liked my rover, told me about LEGO CUUSOO, and encouraged me to submit my model.

The rover out on displaySM:  Did you run into any challenges when designing this model?

SP: The first challenge was choosing a scale.  I began with LEGO Minifigure scale, which is about 1:40, but it was too small to incorporate a working suspension system.  Back then, I didn’t have enough pieces for a larger TECHNIC style model.  I found a nice balance in between by using a scale of 1:20, which is the same scale used for the Miniland displays at the LEGOLAND theme parks.  Another major challenge was the suspension system.  It required a lot of fine tuning.  If any piece was too long or too short, the body of the rover would lean back too far or droop forwards.  Some parts needed to be positioned to within half the thickness of a single plate.

SM: The road from publishing the model to reaching 10,000 supporters was long. What did you do during this time to promote your project?

SP: I began promoting my project by choosing an ideal time to post it.  I submitted it just before the real rover launched on its way to Mars.  This made it easier to bring attention to the model and get an initial boost from the overall media exposure.  Shortly afterwards, I moved across the country to a new job at Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Virginia.  One of the first things I did after moving was join the Washington Metropolitan Area LEGO Users Group (WAMALUG).   Through this group, I was able to participate in public LEGO displays at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  It was the perfect place to engage the public about the rover and its mission.  The museum expressed interest in my model, which inspired me to create seven Curiosity kits that I ended up donating to the museum as well as several other institutions to use for their own educational outreach efforts.  To create the kits, I used digital models and made step-by-step instructions.  In addition, I posted them online so anyone could build the Curiosity rover using their own pieces.    Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time promoting my project through various space websites, blogs, forums, friends, and other social media sites.  Timing worked in my favor again when my project achieved 10,000 shortly after the real Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars.

SM:  What advice can you give to other CUUSOO members with active projects?

The seven rover sets

SP: Promotional effort, enthusiasm, and especially patience are crucial components for a CUUSOO project.  This applies to the project creators and the supporters.  My advice is to enjoy the journey.  During my experience, I had a lot of fun meeting and interacting with others who shared similar interests, whether it was LEGO building, the Curiosity Rover, or both.  It was also very satisfying to be able to contribute to the educational outreach effort for space exploration, even before the project reached 10,000 supporters.

Want more from Stephen? Follow him on CUUSOO to see what he’s up to next!