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.
When robots are as smart as humans, they will be able to explore Mars as well as humans. The Mars rovers move a few meters per day, requiring support from earth, which can be 20 minutes away by radio. Astronauts on the moon covered miles per day, stopping when something interesting popped up, like the "Genesis Rock".
Getting to Mars and backis technically feasible today, using in situ resource utilization. Check out Robert Zubrin's "The Case for Mars".
Not to mention radiation exposure.
The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft was monitoring radiation exposure for the 8.5 months it took to travel to Gale Crater. Curiosity also has several radiation monitors, so NASA is beginning to put together a database on precisely how much radiation astronauts would be exposed to on a trip to Mars.
The good news is that this is the type of data that is needed to design spacecraft, suits and other systems for a manned landing by 2030.
Good point about gravity well, and also good points about why ultimately you gotta get perople there to really make it interesting.
The gravity well problem was handled in the lunar landings, with the landing modules. Of course on Mars, the problem would be worse. But I think the idea is going to be to keep the main craft orbiting around mars. I don't think Mars has the natural resources to allow a lot of refueling on its surface!
But I think there are other important problems to solve. One is keeping people in space for about a year and a half at the very minimum, with either no gravity, or much less gravity than on earth. And then have them survive the return to 1g.
And of course, the other problem is simply to have people isolated from all human contact and support for that long. Even basics like air and water, I mean. Didn't someone try such an experiment not too long ago? They didn't last. Needed an infusion of air at some point, as I recall. And maybe medical assistance too?
The comments above nicely summarized the different views about whether a "telepresence" on Mars is sufficient, or whether we need to send humans. The Curiosity is important for a number of reason, none the least of them being that we demonstrated the type of "power descent" that would be needed to land humans in a much heavier spacecraft on the surface. The problem we have not solved is how to leave the "gravity well" which is the planet Mars. That's why NASA is proposing missions to asteroids or the moons of other planet with smaller gravity wells. Until we figure out a way to generate the energy for a return trip from Mars or another planet, we'll have to continue sending these magnificent machines. Still, there is one other option for human exploration of Mars: Make it a one way trip. There are plenty of pioneers out there willing to volunteer for such a trip.
Robots are great research tools, but they cannot inspire. We will never leave our planetary cradle if we cannot send a few brave leaders ahead of us to show us it can be done. And, quite flatly, we must grow beyond Earth or we must shrink. We are barely holding on now. If we don't take the pressure off somehow we will face starvation and war. I would rather solve the problem in a positive way. We either voluntarily limit ourselves, or we find or build new places to grow.
Having said that, NASA has done a great job with this one. I hope that many benefits come from it. The next logical step is to develop a self-sustaining outpost. After all, packing two years worth of food is a LOT of cargo. Growing your own en route requires much less weight and isn't limited to two years.
NASA is getting better and better at landing on Mars, the last 5 or 6 attempts only one failed. If this trend continues, there is no need to put a human there in the near future. Let's just put more and more robots there.
The Head of the EDL team feels that his team certainly in sum and largely by count of individual more capable than I.This feeling or the wide and strong knowledge base his team has, been under stood by him in the proper way. This gave him and his team a great success.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.