This past Sunday marked a key anniversary for folks here at JPL. On August 5, 2012 at 10:32PM Local Time, the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the rover Curiosity, landed safely on the surface of the red planet. That landing on that day is unofficially considered to be the greatest feat of JPL’s history (more on that in a bit). Over the last couple of months, it started to bother me that as much as I am a fan of this place even before I came here, why I didn’t remember this landing. Only as this anniversary came up did it hit me why.
On August 5, 2012, while Curiosity was preparing for it’s arrival on a foreign place far from anything it had ever experience … so was I. That day was my first day of employment at BP Exploration – Alaska. You could say I missed that landing because I was a little too much into my own planet at the time.
Curiosity’s landing was an incredible engineering marvel; especially when you align all the challenges they faced. For one Mars’s atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, but it still exists. So you can burn up if you don’t slow down, but you can’t rely on parachutes to get you there. You can use thrusters, but Mars is so dusty that doing so will tear up your instruments before they even turn on. Unlike the smaller rovers, Curiosity was the size of a car, and you couldn’t just bounce it in a beach ball without wrecking everything inside. Then with every possible idea you have to get you slowed down, you have to come up with a way for the other things to not wreck what you tried to avoid. What they came up with a stepped process — heat shield to make the initial decent, parachutes to get it below supersonic, thrusters to avoid the parachute & align for landing, a crane to avoid the dust, then shock absorbers on the wheels.
Now take that, and do it without any means for a human to adjust on the fly. Any signal from Mars at that time took about 14 minutes to get to Earth, which means a return takes just as long. No step in this process could wait a half-hour for a decision – it had to be done in seconds. So the the whole of the process was automated, it had to be! In fact, it took 7 minutes for it all to happen. So get this … when the engineers got the message that the landing sequence started, at that specific moment the landing process (if successful) would have been completed for 7 minutes already. It could have be alive, or dead, and they wouldn’t even know it.
The whole thing was captured in a video that was so aptly named:
7 Minutes of Terror <— That’s a link to it, by the way
Earlier that same day, I spent about 7 minutes waiting in a lobby to be called into a room to begin my orientation. It wasn’t terror filled. More just ready to get things going. I think about the time Curiosity landed, I was walking home from Humpy’s where I terrorized myself with the first taste of Salmon & Chips (which wasn’t half bad … halibut & chips was better there though). I had the terror of having a 5am teleconference the next morning … like seriously, second day on the job and I had a 5am teleconference.
Regardless, knowing now that I shared the arrival up in Alaska with our distant buddy on Mars makes me feel a little better it went right over my head.
Let’s just hope I don’t miss the next one.