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Helping NASA Provide Access to All

08/17/2005

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Posing with full-scale model of Mars rovers.
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Interns David Wright, Grace King and Thien Vu worked at JPL as part of the EXCEL program, jointly sponsored by NASA and the National Federation for the Blind. EXCEL stands for "Excellence through Challenging Exploration and Leadership," and seeks to provide blind youth with early employment experience in NASA careers. The interns were selected in a nation-wide search. Three others worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington, D.C.

JPL's EXCEL interns attended science and engineering meetings to plan the rovers' activities. They shadowed planners throughout the process of building and sending commands to Mars. They also produced technical reports about ways to engage blind people in space exploration. Thien wrote a proposal for "Mars Exploration Rover Exhibits for the Blind." David worked on the "Mars Student Imaging Program."

The students carry Braille PDAs. They listen to talking software instead of reading words on a screen. To peruse web photos, they listen to descriptions of each image that are now imbedded in web code on Mars sites. Over the past year, in fact, JPL web sites have undergone a lot of "behind the scenes" adaptations to allow assistive technologies to work better, as well as to ensure JPL is in compliance with federal guidelines for accessibility (Section 508c of the Federal Rehabilitation Act).

Accessibility at JPL didn't stop at the computer screen for these students. John Callas, deputy project manager and science manager of the Mars Exploration Rovers, escorted the interns on tours of JPL along with Mars Public Engagement representative Connie Gennaro. Rover drivers Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu and John Wright (no relation to David) showed them how engineers plan the rovers' paths and manipulate their robotic arms.

Callas gave the interns tactile images of the rovers that let their fingers do the walking. The images consist of tiny, raised dots showing the spacecraft deck, antennas, wheels, and other parts.

The students also have tactile images of rover tracks in the martian sand and tactile maps of JPL for navigating their own way around lab.

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