WASHINGTON – Human beings are capable of great things when they work together.
The engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory JPL who designed, built and flawlessly landed the Curiosity rover on Mars early Monday (Aug. 6) provide a classic example of how teamwork overcame what appeared eight years ago to be a seemingly insolvable problem: How do you slow a nearly 1-ton spacecraft descending through the thin Martian atmosphere at nearly 6 km a second (13,000 miles per hour) to less than 1 meter per second at touchdown inside a 96-mile Martian crater? (Mission managers estimate that Curiosity hit the surface at only 0.57 meters per second.)
Other landing techniques wouldn’t work. Putting the Curiosity rover on a lunar module-like lander was deemed to be too unstable in flight. The airbag technique used to cocoon and bounce the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to the surface also wouldn’t work for the heavier Curiosity rover, which is essentially a mobile science laboratory.
JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team eventually came up with a high-risk sky crane technique, what rocket scientists call a powered descent, to lower Curiosity on cables the last 25 feet to the surface at Gale Crater. A lot of engineers, including many of you, reckoned the technique was simply too complicated to work, at least on the first try.
They were wrong.
Adam Steltzner, the head of EDL team and the JPL engineer most closely associated with the risky landing maneuver, was quick to stress the importance of teamwork during an emotional midnight press conference. “I am terribly humbled by this experienced,” the subdued Steltzner began. “I forever secretly have felt that I do not deserve to be in the position of leading the team that I lead because they are certainly in sum and largely by count of individual more capable than I.
“That great things take many people working together to make them happen is one of the fantastic things of human existence.”
Pointing at the first pictures from Curiosity, Steltzner continued, “There is a new picture of a new place on Mars. For me, at least, that’s the big payoff.”
“Engineers,” he concluded, “we are kind of tool makers, agriculturalists, pioneers, and that’s reflected in the results of tonight.” Tipping his hat to the engineers in the trenches, he ended, “Thank you to the blue shirts.”
The JPL engineers who built the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft that delivered the Curiosity to the surface of Mars, apparently without a scratch, are the direct descendants of the risk takers who strapped themselves into rockets and flew to the moon. As with Apollo, the JPL engineers were bold, they worked tirelessly to reduce the risks inherent in such an ambitious mission, then tested, retested and tested some more. Ultimately, they put their vehicle in the hands of Isaac Newton and it worked.
The Curiosity mission signals a new beginning for human exploration of the planets. This revival was based on teamwork, subordination of ego, constant attention to detail and the willingness to take risks for the benefit of all mankind.
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