Local man's program will let NASA see Mars in 3-D

February 17, 1999

Virtual MarsBy BRYN MICKLE / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

photo courtesy of Chris Allport

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - What started as a search for a summer job has turned into "2001: A Space Odyssey" for a 1993 graduate of Martinsburg High School.

Chris Allport, 23, is close to completing a virtual reality computer program that will allow NASA scientists to guide robot rovers on the next U.S. mission to Mars in 2001.

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"It's kind of overwhelming. I never pictured my life taking this particular direction," said Allport.

Allport, a graduate student at West Virginia University's College of Engineering and Mineral Sciences in Morgantown, W.Va., was hired by NASA last year to help the space agency take some of the guesswork out of unmanned space missions.


Sometimes spending up to 80 hours a week in front of a computer reworking lines of code, Allport has written a program that allows robots to create 3-D images of terrain on Mars and other planets.

NASA mission planners will be able to use virtual reality to send more specialized instructions to the robot and improve the way it interacts with the planetary environment.

"This gives the scientists a 360-degree image by mimicking the way a left and right eye work," Allport said. "It reconstructs the environment and terrain in 3-D and gives a representation of what is actually there."

Allport returned last week from Mountainview, Calif., where he helped NASA field test the robot rover during a simulated Mars landing in the Mojave Desert.

While he didn't mind California, Allport said it was a little large for his tastes.

"It makes Martinsburg look tinier than Inwood," he said.

On track to graduate this spring with a master's degree in electrical engineering, Allport said he hopes to set up a remote mission testing control in Morgantown that will allow him to keep helping NASA but avoid long trips to the West Coast.

Ted Blackmon, Allport's adviser and a member of NASA's Intelligence Mechanisms Group, said NASA would like to continue working with Allport after he graduates.

"Following the success of (Mars) Pathfinder and the VR used in that mission, we wanted to extend our research further," Blackmon said. "We're able to do that now."

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