ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — On Feb. 18, NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover made its final descent, landing on the fourth planet from the sun, which is known as the red planet.
On that day, Andy Vano sent a quick text to his grandchildren: “Today is a historic day for the mission to Mars. The Perseverance rover has landed safely.”
Vano, 81, who has lived in the Alexandria, Minn., lakes area since 1974, has been watching the coverage of the Perseverance rover and has a little familiarity with it. From 1963 to 1973, Vano was an aerospace engineer at the NASA Flight Research Center at the Edwards Air Force Base in California.
While at the NASA Flight Center, Vano worked on many different projects, including the North American X-15, a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft. Vano said it flew up to speeds of Mach 6.7 and went into space a couple of times.
He also helped to build the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, which was used to validate the Lunar Excursion Module’s flight control system, as well as develop a training vehicle for the astronauts. The lunar module was the one where NASA Astronaut Neil Armstrong said, “The eagle has landed.”
“It was unique in that the jet engine was mounted on a gimbal and programmed to provide the vertical thrust to make the flight control system think it was in a lunar gravity field,” Vano said.
Even though this is not the first time NASA has landed a rover on Mars, Vano said the Perseverance is unique because of so many aspects, including its high-resolution cameras.
“We are living in extremely exciting times with huge discoveries and this, the Perseverance, is one of them,” Vano said. “These NASA programs, they are helping to discover who we are and that’s profound. It’s important for us. The Perseverance rover is incredible.”
Vano’s interest in aerospace research started in the last few years of high school. He found that his talents were in math and science and so when he went to college, he took those types of classes. He graduated in 1962 from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor of science degree in Aeronautical Engineering.
During his time at NASA, while at the research center, he was taking a class at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA had a program, the Surveyor, from June 1966 through January 1968, that sent seven robotic spacecraft to the surface of the moon. The program was implemented by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Surveyor craft was the first American spacecraft to achieve soft landing on the moon.
“I remember clearly when it landed on the moon,” said Vano, who added that the Surveyor ended up in a museum and how neat it was that he got to see it.
When he and his wife, Sally, decided to have a family they moved to the Alexandria area, where they currently live on the east side of Lake Carlos.
He spent time working as a chief engineer for several companies including Bellanca Aircraft Corporation in Alexandria. And although he said he is 99% retired, Vano still works as the chief engineer for Bellanca, which is now called Alexandria Aircraft LLC.
After moving back to Minnesota, Vano also worked as a professor for the University of Minnesota at the Minneapolis campus in the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics Department. He retired from there in 2004.
"We are living in extremely exciting times with huge discoveries and this, the Perseverance, is one of them. These NASA programs, they are helping to discover who we are and that’s profound. It’s important for us. The Perseverance rover is incredible."
- Andy Vano
While there, he was teaching a Capstone design class and ended up receiving a grant from NASA for his design class. His students designed lunar transportation systems for manned missions to Mars and landings on Jupiter.
“It was a really neat experience,” Vano said. “And a fun and interesting time.”
Vano looks back at his NASA days with a great fondness and said that his time there was definitely interesting.
He will continue watching the exploration of the Mars Perseverance rover and hopes others do too, as he said it is an exciting part of history.