Montage of our solar system

When Enrique Garcia was growing up in Pasadena, CA, in a bilingual home with his Spanish-speaking mother, Eduarda, he dreamed of becoming a comic book illustrator.

But his life has taken a different turn: last summer, as a 16-year-old summer employee at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the budding artist and computer graphics wiz drew concept designs for an inflatable solar array and, as part of a team effort, for a rover with 1.5-meter-high (five-foot) inflatable wheels. This summer, as he now heads to college, his designs have been transformed into actual working prototypes that are available for use on future NASA missions.

"It was cool to see my drawings turn into something real," says Garcia, 17, who just completed a second summer employee stint at JPL and has now started classes at Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, CA, where he is majoring in computer animation. "But it was also bizarre, because I'd never dreamt of anything like that happening."

When Garcia was 10, Eduarda, a single mother originally from Mexico, contacted the Catholic Big Brothers program, one of more than 500 affiliates of Big Brothers of America, to team him with a Big Brother -- a member of the community who would serve as a father figure to her son. The candidate turned out to be Art Chmielewski, now manager of the Space Inflatable Technology Program at JPL.

Coincidentally, Chmielewski's own father had been a comic book illustrator in his native Poland, so he and Garcia quickly bonded through their mutual interest in drawing. Chmielewski arranged for Garcia to use a computer loaded with computer graphics software, and Garcia was soon off and running. The young student honed his skills two years ago when, as a junior at Upland High School in Upland, CA, he became a certified advanced microcomputer repair technician through a regional occupational program in nearby Claremont.

"If I had never met Art, I would never have even thought of working someday at a NASA research lab," recalls Garcia, who lives with his mother in Upland. "I was a typical fifth grader, thinking about drawing comics, but I never thought I'd ever be picturing ideas for the space program."

As a student employee this summer and last, he worked not only on computer graphics tasks but also web mastering and video editing projects. During the Mars Pathfinder landing in July 1997, Chmielewski analyzed ways to transform the Sojourner rover into inflatable technologies that could be launched folded up like origami, then unfolded and rigidized in space or on celestial bodies when needed. Chmielewski's discussions with his staff inspired Garcia to use graphics software to draw an inflatable, balloon-shaped solar array capable of picking up sunlight from a variety of angles. Working in concert with JPL engineer Jack Jones, now head of JPL's inflatable rover team, Garcia also used the magic of drawing software to transform Sojourner into an inflatable structure with huge wheels that could be inflated upon arrival on a planet or moon.

Chmielewski was so taken by Garcia's efforts that he found NASA and private sector funding to transform the designs into working prototypes, under Jones' stewardship. Today, the two technologies are part of a growing arsenal of inflatable technologies ready to be adapted to the specific needs of new NASA missions.

Though their official Big Brother-Little Brother days are ending, Garcia and Chmielewski remain buddies -- close enough that Garcia feels free to critique the very prototype rover whose construction Chmielewski oversaw. "Frankly, I was disappointed when I first saw it, because it didn't look exactly the way I drew it," he says. "But then you take into account all of the technical stuff that has to happen, and you get over it."

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