Up until just a few short weeks ago, there had been 39 missions to Mars from various countries. With 15 successes and 24 failures, the track record has been less than stellar, putting even more pressure on the success of the August 5th landing of NASA’s Mars rover called Curiosity.
In the midst of all the excitement, two new pop culture icons emerged. The first, a mission engineer known as “the Mohawk Guy,” who became an Internet celebrity for his space-inspired ‘do. The other, Adam Steltzner (affectionately nicknamed “Elvis Guy” for his sideburns), caught fame when his catchphrase, “seven minutes of terror” was etched into the public consciousness. This oft-repeated phrase was invoked by journalists to describe the communications blackout period that happened when the spacecraft carrying the rover first entered the Martian atmosphere. While expected, it was still a nail-biter for the mission control team as they waited to learn whether Curiosity had met a fiery death or succeeded in making an extraordinarily complicated landing on the Red Planet.
Just how complicated was it? As described by Mars Science Laboratory engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the challenges of getting to Mars and landing the rover safely were daunting. How do you slow a space vehicle down from 13,000 MPH to zero? One piece of the landing sequence involved deploying the largest supersonic parachute ever built. The chute weighed just 100 pounds but had to be built to withstand 65,000 pounds of force. And that was just one obstacle to overcome.
The combination of atmospheric resistance and the supersonic chute slowed the descent to about 200 MPH, when rockets fired and an advanced radar guidance system kicked in. After some sideways flying to further decrease speed, the final task was to deploy the rover, lowering it down the last 20 feet to the planet’s surface via a tethering system, or “space crane.”
Part of a series of missions focused on robotic exploration of Mars, the Curiosity rover carries “the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface.” Powered by plutonium isotopes, the 6-wheeled lab has about one Martian year (687 earth days) to accomplish its mission of studying the planet’s climate and geology. Meanwhile, back on terra firma, the Mars Science Laboratory team will assess whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life. As the JPL explains, determining past habitability on Mars gives NASA and the scientific community a better understanding of whether life could have existed there, and will be a factor in planning future explorations.
The success of the Curiosity landing was all the more exciting given the degree of difficulty and the number of costly failures that preceded it. One of the more notorious examples was the loss of the $125 million dollar Mars Climate Orbiter, caused by a simple math miscalculation.
The most poignant mission failure for me personally, was the Mars Polar Lander back in December 1999. I had the privilege of being part of a creative team tasked to create a brand identity for the program. In the course of our assignment, we had the chance to tour the JPL facility and meet with some of the team members.
Aside from the mock-up of the vehicle, which was there for press to use as a backdrop for doing stand-ups, it was a fairly low-key place. While I didn’t see anyone then that looked like the “Mohawk Guy,” I did see a lot of hard working people, working in teams and collaborating to achieve an awesome engineering goal. And I remember thinking that for these folks, working to “slip the surly bonds of earth” is literally just another day at the office.