Careers

NASA rocket scientist: Here's how to figure out what to do with your life

Adam Steltzner never imagined he would be the chief engineer of NASA's mission to Mars.

He was a mediocre student in high school and he disliked physics. He wanted to pursue music and theater.

But one glance at the night sky changed that.

"I got curious," the rocket scientist tells Todd Henry on the podcast "The Accidental Creative."

Steltzner, then 21 years old, "followed [that curiosity] down to the local community college to take an astronomy course."

He didn't know what he would major in, how far he would pursue his education or even his career trajectory, he explains in his book "The Right Kind of Crazy." The future rocket scientist just knew he was interested.

Several years later, he earned a doctorate in engineering and landed a job at NASA, where he served as a lead engineer of the Mars Exploration Curiosity Rover mission.

Adam Steltzner (right) and fellow NASA employees react to the Curiosity rover landing on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012.
Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images
Adam Steltzner (right) and fellow NASA employees react to the Curiosity rover landing on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012.

His best career advice is for young professionals to follow their own curiosity and reject the urge to have their entire career path figured out right away.

"It's impossible for me to imagine that you could understand what's going on, all the twists and turns you want to take, at 20 or frankly even 30," he says.

And that's coming from someone who probably doesn't use the word "impossible" lightly, since he helps explore Mars for a living.

Steltzner helped develop the sky crane method, an engineering feat that allowed the heavy rover, traveling at more than 620 miles per hour, to land intact on Mars.

"Look inside [yourself] and see where the joy comes from." -Adam Steltzner, chief engineer of NASA's Mars 2020 Project

"I would recommend to someone who's in their 20s and feeling stagnant to look inside themselves and see where the joy comes from," he says.

Of course, changing careers or making other big professional moves is not possible for everyone in their 20s. But even having a hobby that interests you can benefit your career, studies show. And you can try incorporating that interest into your job by proposing new work projects.

"Fear locks us in so frequently, or locks me in so frequently," Steltzner says. "Don't be afraid."

Watch Jay Leno drive a version of the $2.5 billion Mars Rover.