Curiosity’s Landing: The View From Inside (the Press Hall)

The Sky Crane lowering Curiosity to the surface of Mars. It was the most complicated landing system NASA’s used for a planetary mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

We’ve all seen the “7 minutes of Terror” video. It’s exciting and it brilliantly captures just how complicated the one-ton Curiosity rover’s landing system is. What the video doesn’t mention is just how much was on the line for all the engineers behind the system. Their funding for future missions and their jobs on successful missions. A failure of the Sky Crane wouldn’t just mean the end of the MSL mission before it really started, it could mean a lot of engineers would be looking for new jobs on Monday morning. There was a lot at stake, and the mood around JPL last weekend was understandably tense. 

The mood carried over into Planet Fest, the Planetary Society’s two-day long party celebrating Mars, exploration, and the science and technology that makes it possible. There were rousing talks from the society’s president Jim Bell – who also serves as one of the scientists working with images returned from Curiosity’s suite of 17 cameras – about the compelling reasons to study Mars. Scott Maxwell, the man with the virtual keys to Curiosity, gave an incredible talk about the challenges of driving a rover on another planet; he likened the task to hitting your gas pedal but having your car take five minutes to move an inch. The underlying message was clear: landing and working on Mars is extremely hard. The unspoken subtext felt like “if this all fails, you maybe shouldn’t be entirely surprised.”

Rob Manning addressing the crowd at the Planetary Society’s Mars Party. Photo Credit: Amy Shira Teitel

The Planetary Society threw a party Saturday night. Since Curiosity’s scheduled landing was so late Sunday it was sort of a pre-landing celebration. The vaguely space-themed block party felt a little premature, but the odd mix reporters, interested lay people, lay people in costumes, and engineers didn’t seem to mind. It was a rare chance to talk to some of the guys behind the Sky Crane candidly and with a glass of wine in hand.

Chief engineer from JPL Rob Manning addressed the crowd – looking strangely out of place in front of a glowing DJ booth – about how excited he was to see so many people out and interested in Martian exploration. I asked him afterwards, over wine, what he thought the worst case scenario would be; if everything failed what did he anticipate the public response would be. He told me he expected people would be forgiving. He pointed to the crowd as an indication that people do care about Mars and about the work he and his colleagues from JPL do. I had to admire his faith in people.

Sunday morning at JPL the mood was tense. Dozens of journalists tapped away on their laptops were busily writing the same two stories: one for a successful landing and one for a failed attempt. As “new media,” blogging and posting updates on social media sites throughout the day, it was the first time I’d seen this grim side of journalism.

At press conferences that day engineers and scientist on the panel kept repeating positive and non-specific lines like “there is no doubt that Curiosity will make discoveries.” But there was a sense of worry creeping through the room. Someone pointed out that we’ve had continuous robotic presence on Mars for 15 years and that a failed landing would end that streak. No one wanted to interrupt our longest ongoing planetary exploration. I spoke to Doug Isbell who does communications for JPL about radioactive material sent into space. I asked about the two pounds of plutonium on Curiosity and the possibility that we might accidentally nuke Mars. He told me that even the worst case scenario – a full-speed crash into the planet – wouldn’t see plutonium leak out of Curiosity’s RTG and into the Martian atmosphere. The power source was well protected. It was nice to hear that if the Sky Crane crashed and killed our dreams, at least we wouldn’t also kill Mars.

By 10:25 that night, the engineers and scientists were safely tucked away in mission control away form the media, though we could see them on the live TV stream broadcast throughout the press area. We could see them sitting silently at their consoles. The press conference hall was packed and similarly silent. You could have heard a pin drop. As every stage of Curiosity’s EDL was verified – guided entry working, parachute deployed – the room echoed the applause in mission control then promptly fell silent waiting for confirmation of the next stage.

EDL engineers, some smiling and others looking just plain tired as it neared midnight, streaming into the press centre. Photo Credit: Amy Shira Teitel

Then the room exploded. Cameras started flashing and people were hugging all over the place. It was exuberant chaos.

I didn’t think the actual landing would be so exciting. The landing was, after all, telemetry on a console and not a beautifully animated and expertly scored video. But for all the people who had been living however distantly with Curiosity for months or years, the relief and excitement was honest. Personally, I’ve been following the Sky Crane and studying landing systems for years. I don’t think I realized just how nervous I was about this mission’s success until Curiosity was safely on the ground. My own relief caught me off guard, and I saw it mirrored on the faces of everyone else in the room. As the EDL team streamed into the press centre for the post-landing conference, JPL became a much happier and relaxed place than it had been just hours earlier.

One Comment

  1. There’s no doubt MSL personnel supporting Mars surface operations will be gainfully employed at JPL for some time, thanks to last week’s successful landing. But I have to wonder about the engineers responsible for entry/descent/landing (EDL). With the Science Mission Directorate’s budget depleted by MSL’s cost and schedule overruns, when will EDL engineering skills next be required and funded at JPL? Will the expensive EDL “corporate memory” purchased during MSL development be lost to posterity?

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