Early Monday morning, NASA's newest Mars rover, Curiosity, landed successfully.
One of the most dramatic parts of the flight to Mars was the final seven minutes when the whole payload has to land, fully automated, with no input from Mission Control. NASA calls this the "Seven Minutes of Terror," and created a great video, which can be viewed at http://1.usa.gov/OKNVaI.
I happened to be listening to NPR Monday morning, and to hear the people in Mission Control as each step along the way succeeded was truly heartwarming.
As I listened to the story, tears came to my eyes. I think of the hard work, years of dedication, obstacles, decisions and the risks inherent with interplanetary space travel that could have had just about anything go wrong. Yet it didn't.
I used to live just a few miles from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and even did some work for them, so I've been at the facility, in Mission Control — it's a lot smaller than you'd think — and even seen its Mars test area, where they try out their rovers. My daughter attended preschool with the children of these true rocket scientists. So JPL missions have a special place in my heart.
I have trouble comprehending the magnitude of an endeavor such as this. But I am glad we have people who can and do these sorts of projects. Curiosity is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and weighs close to a ton. That's all that's left after a liftoff, space travel for a few months, and numerous parts to deliver Curiosity safely to the surface of Mars.
Think of the thousands of people working on their parts, large and small, the engineering, the contractors and subcontractors, the quality assurance and testing. Makes any "large" project pale by comparison.
Yet, I connected with the engineers in their success at a job well done. While we all learn from our mistakes, it's fair to say that the successes are a whole lot more fun.
Now that Curiosity is on Mars, one of its jobs will be to start exploring and gaining more information about Mars. Already the photos Curiosity is sending back are stunning. While visually we will be receiving good information, the other devices and detectors on Curiosity will provide us with other valuable scientific knowledge that can only be gained by being on Mars.
Curiosity is a great reminder that we still have national skills in space exploration.