Six Wheels on the Ground

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Today at 2:55PM PST, we heard the words “Tango Delta Nominal.” It was code for Touch Down, and the Rover is operational. Precedence landed on Mars. The JPL rover built and tested just across the road from my office performed flawlessly during the entry, decent, and landing.

I watched the event from home in a massive IT set-up. I streamed the event on my TV through my PlayStation and YouTube. On my IPad, I had our virtual watch party with five or six friends. I had my work laptop with it’s two screens set ups so I could be in a team chat room, follow a lab-wide chat room, and a telemetry page they gave us access to so we could watch real time data of the landing. Meanwhile I was loaded with messages, texts, and social media posts. I didn’t have anything to do with the landing, but not like anyone at JPL did. The landing sequence was autonomous, and as I blogged yesterday, the whole process was complete before we received a signal that it began. Even the folks in mission control cold only sit, watch, and hope.

All of us in the watch parties were nervous yet excited. There was a lot to go wrong, a lot at stake, and we spent a lot of our hard work. The first sigh of relief was when we got word of a successful parachute deployment, knowing the immediate failure would come harshly. Word that the thrusters lit meant the worst was over. Then, Tango Delta Nominal. Quickly, word came over that the rover was reporting it was safe, and in less than a second a picture of the landing site was posted.

What made it fun was seeing everyone’s reaction – and by everyone, I mean world wide. The best ones were the funniest ones. Like in reference to that picture, we saw:

“Kudos to the software engineers who were able to photoshop the Martians out of the pictures so quickly.”

Someone tweeted:

“Don’t let NASA fool you. “Percy” is no lovable, touchy feely explorer. It’s actually a two-ton, nuclear powered, titanium robot that is going to spend a decade trampling over Mars, drilling into it mercilessly and stealing some rocks.”

Another tweet came from an account called “SarcasticRover” said:

“Finally understand how Woody felt when Buzz Lightyear showed up.”

The rover is now going through it’s safety checks and uploading the data collected during landing. We will start getting high resolution photos tomorrow and possibly a video. The rover should start moving around in the next few weeks as the operational situation is checked out. On day 30, the floor on the rover will drop allowing the Integrity Mars Helicopter to be deployed where it will begin its tests to be ready for first flight. And that’s when I will leave you with the last quote of the day that came from a flight engineer:

“Now, all we need is to get the rover to poop out a helicopter, and we can call this a win.”

Across the area, JPLers are celebrating (safely). JPL’s motto is “Dare Mighty Things”, and this was the mightiest thing we dared. Last January, when they announced the rover name, I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan. Up to that point, we hadn’t faced that much of an uphill battle, so it seemed like a choice by a politician. When the rover left the lab last February, we still didn’t know what was coming ahead. Engineers and technicians finished launch protocols in the middle of this pandemic while some three thousand miles from home in Florida. Project specialists finalized their plans when they couldn’t even be in the same room to talk. All of JPL had to celebrate with each other alone, not the way we wanted to spend it. Yet this mission was successful. This mission Persevered, and that rover earned its name today.

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