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From Legos to Rockets: Inventor's Career Taking Off

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 6, 2002 — The Lemelson-MIT Program announced today that Andrew Heafitz, an MIT graduate student and Newton, Mass. native, has been selected as the recipient of its eighth annual $30,000 Student Prize for inventiveness. The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize judging panel selected Heafitz, a 32-year-old doctoral candidate in Mechanical Engineering for his ingenuity and remarkable inventiveness. Among Heafitz's notable inventions are a low-cost rocket engine and an aerial surveillance system designed for the U.S. Army.

Heafitz's love for problem-solving can be traced back to his childhood interest in Legos™ and other toys that foster creativity. Although many family members recognized his natural inclination for engineering, Heafitz insists he didn't fully understand what engineering was—"designing, inventing and building things"—until he arrived at MIT in 1987. Winning the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is a significant achievement for Heafitz, who had modest aspirations initially. "I was just hoping to be average at MIT," he says. "Everyone here is so much better than average that winning the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is humbling."

For his master's thesis, Heafitz helped to build a low-cost, kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket engine, using a solar-car motor to get it up to full speed before igniting. His experience and familiarity with solar-powered cars, which Heafitz builds and races as a hobby, prompted him to choose this type of motor. The design greatly simplifies the high-performance engine needed to reach space and can be manufactured at one-tenth the cost of existing rocket engines. Heafitz also invented a method of using the solar-car motor as a dynamometer to determine if the turbine produced enough power for the engine to be self-sustaining.

If the engine passes its next test firing, scheduled for late March 2002, the MIT Rocket Team will use the engine to power a rocket of its own design into space. Heafitz, who is a founder and one of the co-leaders of the team, hopes that the rocket's cargo, a set of video cameras taking a 360° x 360° panorama, will be used as a virtual reality exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science. This interactive exhibit would let people see what it would be like to ride on a rocket into space.

Currently, Heafitz is developing a new rocket camera system for the U.S. Army. The soda can-sized device transmits aerial reconnaissance pictures to a laptop computer. To invent the new surveillance system, Heafitz combined two of his previously successful innovations—a remote aerial photography platform designed for his undergraduate thesis and a balsa wood, motor-driven rocket camera that he built while still in high school.

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Heafitz holds a U.S. patent for the balsa wood rocket camera and was a Westinghouse Science Talent Search Finalist when he was in high school.

"I have watched Andrew develop incredibly resourceful solutions, drawing together ideas and techniques from a wide spectrum of engineering," said John Keesee, Senior Lecturer at MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics who has worked closely with Heafitz. "He is unusually prolific, an outstanding inventor, and fully deserving of this award."

Heafitz, who is currently conducting his doctoral thesis research, used his rocket camera concept to form TacShot Inc., a company which develops and produces the low-cost aerial surveillance systems. The concept was originally used on an archeological expedition, in the form of a tethered helium balloon with a tele-operated video camera attached, during which a submerged portion of an ancient city off the Greek coast was discovered. It was also used to survey a sunken pirate ship off Cape Cod.

Among those recommending Heafitz for this year's Student Prize was the 2000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner Amy Smith . "I have always been impressed with his creativity and love of mechanical design," said Smith, now an Instructor at MIT. "He has an amazing ability to reduce his ideas to practice quickly and effectively. He's a true inventor with a love of innovation."

Heafitz earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and expects to complete his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering in 2005. Before returning to MIT for his Master's degree, he designed electric vehicles as Director of Truck Production Engineering at Solectria Corporation. He was also a Product Design Consultant for Arthur D. Little, where he designed and helped build the "Plant Growth Facility" experiment, which was flown on the space shuttle and was used to look at how plants grow without the influence of gravity; a carbon fiber bicycle for a leading bicycle manufacturer; night vision goggle harnesses; and surgical tools, among other mechanisms.

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards including the world's single largest prize for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno. Last fall, the Lemelson-MIT Program and MIT Press released Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse (www.inventingmodernamerica.com), an illustrated book that profiles 35 American inventors who helped shape the modern world.

Read more about Andrew Heafitz.

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