His work roams Mars. His journey began at Oregon State.

Mars rover Perserverance landing

There鈥檚 a bit of Beaver Nation on the red planet.

Oregon State alumnus William Allen, 鈥86, played a key role in the mechanical systems design of NASA鈥檚 , which captured the world鈥檚 attention when it recorded video of its own in February.

Perseverance is now busy searching for signs of past microbial life and collecting samples for possible return to Earth. The mission, as described by NASA, 鈥減rovides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate  that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars.鈥

Video courtesy of .

Four decades ago, Allen didn鈥檛 have his sights set on Mars. But he was determined to get a solid education.

鈥淥regon State was touted as a good engineering school, and once I stepped foot on that campus, that鈥檚 all it took for me,鈥 he says.

William Allen Mars Story
William Allen in the 鈥淢ars yard,鈥 where he and others have tested multiple generations of Mars rovers.
Photo courtesy of NASA.

Allen grew up in West Los Angeles and spent his childhood taking apart and improving every bicycle or other mechanical device his parents gave him. Anticipating college, he realized he had some catching up to do in advanced math.

鈥淚 knew if I stayed home in California that would be harder, so a combination of that and wanting to choose a good engineering school were what brought me to Corvallis. I had to grow up really fast both educationally and personally.鈥

At Oregon State, Allen found exceptional teachers and advisors who saw his potential and helped him apply it. One advisor had connections at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA. With approval from the , Allen worked at JPL in multiple six-month co-ops between stints back on campus.

Allen started in the mailroom at JPL, but his talent for solving complex problems was quickly discovered.

鈥淥regon State was giving me the foundation to grow,鈥 he says. 鈥淎nd the work at JPL was giving substance to the theory.鈥

When Allen graduated with a degree in engineering physics in 1986, he had a full-time job offer waiting for him at JPL. During his 30-plus years as a mechanical design engineer, he has been a key player on several tiger teams 鈥 cross-disciplinary groups tasked to find creative solutions for an array of engineering challenges. Project leaders tapped him to work on earlier Mars rovers, which naturally landed him on the Perseverance team.

鈥淕etting a chance to work with such brilliant minds is incredible and motivating,鈥 Allen says. 鈥淭he problems are unique, and sometimes the solutions need to be unique as well. To be in the mix of those minds and solve those problems is extraordinary.鈥

鈥淢y time at Oregon State was by far the most meaningful five years I鈥檝e ever had, an exceptional experience. And the career at JPL that it helped me prepare for is very rewarding. For the most part, you just put on your work hat and go to work every day, and then events like yesterday happen every so often to remind you that this is kind of cool stuff we do.鈥

鈥 William Allen, 鈥86, after the Mars Perseverance landing

This story first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of the . 

Read more about the journeys of Mars Perseverance and William Allen

The Perseverance rover snapped a self-portrait during its first extended drive on Martian soil.