Mars Landing: What It Was Like For Me At NASA Headquarters, Watching 7 Minutes of Hell

Curiosity, the NASA land rover, survived the seven minutes of terror required to enter Mars atmosphere, slowed from 13,000 miles per hour, and then landed while suspended from a rocket propelled sky-crane. This historic landing on Mars brings 15 times the science equipment to the surface of the red planet. The mission: Explore an area where NASA believes the building blocks of life may exist, while studying radiation and the environment to understand how to one day land humans on Mars. 

The risk of failure for the mission was extremely high; there was a one in three chance of success. Mission accomplished. Soon, after several weeks of turning on the science equipment and testing the tools, the rover will begin it's work.

Last night, I experienced this from inside NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and I will try to share what it was like to be there.

First ... the mission (Narrated by William Shatner):

View a clip of what NASA calls "7 Minutes of Hell"

My Experience

Each person at NASA headquarters was intimately aware of the various stages of the landing process. As the team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California announced each stage taking place, people slid to the edge of their seats. They knew that failure of any one of the stages would be the end of the mission. There was a silent anticipation in the auditorium filled with people who had known many successes and some failures.

They knew this kind of landing had never been achieved before and that the pioneering research would never be carried out by Curiosity if there was a single error.  

When I asked a NASA administrator what he thought about the dangers inherent during the automated landing he said, "Nothing you can do about it now. You just have to sit tight and enjoy life."  

Communication signals require 14 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth, so the entire landing sequence was pre-programmed and set on auto-pilot. Everything had to go perfectly, and it did.

The spacecraft left it's protective shell and prepared to head through the atmosphere and everyone leaned on the edge of their seats. The parachute successfully deployed and there was a roaring applause as it began to slow down. The exploding bolts fired off the heat shield and Curiosity dropped out of the pod and hung from the Rocket propelled sky crane –– something never tried before. The feeling was exhilarating.

Then it landed gently on target. Engineers and scientists had spent late hours in the office, missing weekends with family, but 10 years of work had all paid off.

Everyone leapt to their feet cheering –– the impossible had been achieved.  

As the cameras went around the Jet Propulsion Lab, it showed the mission team cheering.

The Timing

NASA had carefully timed the Curiosity landing with the orbit of the Mars Odyssey satellite which was in Mars orbit. (Odyssey has found evidence that there was water on Mars' surface, and this mission was to be an extension of that discovery). The rover then achieved a data connection with Odyssey and was able to send photos back almost immediately.  

Engineering cameras with their lens caps covered were the first to snap images; the dust that had been kicked up from the landing was visible. The data was received on a desktop computer and then the image was opened up while everyone cheered. 

It was unknown if the first images would be beamed to Earth within hours, days, or weeks. The planning worked and images were received in minutes. 

Image 1: The rover tire.

Image 2: The shadow of the rover seen through a dust covered lens cap

(View the full mission and other images as they become available on the Mars Science Laboratory mission webpage.)

Soon the high-definition camera will be unwrapped and sharp images will be beamed back from Mars.

The Science

The research will slowly proceed after weeks of careful equipment testing. Once all the tools are functioning, the rover will begin to roll. We will learn if the building blocks of life exist on Mars within a crater where NASA believes water flowed in the past. We will learn vast amounts of information about the environment on Mars that allows preparation for people to walk on the red planet.

After 10 years of engineering, eight months of travelling through space, a revolutionary method of landing that occurred with 7 minutes of sheer terror, Curiosity has landed on Mars. 

The science now begins.