6 August 2012
We made it! Curiosity is safely on the surface of Mars and is returning some spectacular data!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My goal with these blog posts is to record everything in detail while it’s still fresh in my mind. A lot has happened since I was last asleep, so let’s rewind a bit.
Yesterday morning, I woke up after sleeping in all the way until 8:30 am, and promptly headed out the door to have breakfast with fellow NASA academy alum Diana Trujillo, her husband Will Pomerantz, and some of their friends. We had a lovely, relaxed breakfast that ran so long that I had to drive straight from breakfast to lunch with the ChemCam team. After stuffing my face some more, I went back to the apartment for the afternoon to take it easy before the big night. And by “take it easy” I mean: “Watch press conferences about MSL and slowly start to freak out”.
I’m sharing the apartment with my boss/colleague Ken Herkenhoff, and we met up with Alicia Vaughan, who worked on MER and now teaches in Flagstaff. She was out in town because she has friends at JPL and because there was a teacher’s workshop for MSL. After dinner, Ken and I drove separately over the JPL. I met up with some other science team folks after I parked and we dropped out stuff in the big room where the science team would be watching the landing (they kick us out of the control rooms because we would be in the way of the engineers and VIPs). But I joined a few other young scientists and wandered over to the press area, where we saw some VIPs arriving, including Alex Trebek, Seth Green, and Wil Wheaton. So that was cool in an awkward sort of way. I was antsy to get back to the science team room though.
We walked back over, and over the next hour or so, the room filled up with excited, nervous scientists and the chatter rose to a dull roar. NASA TV was playing on one big screen at the front of the room, while a simulation of Curiosity showed on the other screen. The room was so loud that I couldn’t hear the audio for NASA TV, so I actually got most of my mission status updates from twitter. Finally, John Grotzinger appeared and called us all to order. Once everyone quieted down, he showed us a trailer for a new Nova show about Curiosity that is coming out soon, which earned lots of applause, especially when someone on the team appeared on screen. Next, John gave us a short pep talk that boiled down to: “play nice together, be patient, and have fun.” Once Grotzinger was done talking, he passed the mic to my former adviser Jim Bell, who took the opportunity to share his favorite exploration quote:
What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river,
we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things… With some eagerness, and some anxiety, and
some misgiving, we enter the canyon below, and are carried along by the swift water…
–John Wesley Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River, 1869
Grotzinger also convinced Steve Squyres to share some wisdom with the group, and Steve basically echoed the sentiment that we are incredibly lucky to be able to do great things like this, and that we should cherish the moment, and have fun with the mission.
Finally, to get everyone nice and scared, they played the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video on a huge screen with the sound cranked way up.
We were getting pretty close to landing at this point, and people started to quiet down and find their places. And then the time passed when Curiosity’s fate was already sealed and we were just waiting for the signal. A hush fell, and we listened to the audio feed from NASA TV on the edge of our seats. The milestones started flying by: peak heating, parachute deploy, heat shield separation, powered descent, skycrane. And then it was over. We were on Mars. And the place went crazy.
Seconds later, the first image came down, and cheers erupted again. We could see, through the dusty lens cover on the hazard avoidance camera, a gravely surface and the wheel of our precious rover. We watched in awe as the image was zoomed and Jim Bell yelled with mock annoyance that they need to properly stretch the contrast to bring out the details. And then another image! And then another, with the rover’s shadow on the surface like a self-portrait! The images were blurry and dusty, but we all stared at those images and started speculating about what we might be seeing.
Eventually the post-landing press conference happened and the EDL team got the rock-star reception that they so richly deserve. After the press conference, the science team was allowed back into the operations building, so we gradually started trickling over there and discussing the images. Some time after 1am, some of the MSL science team members who are also HiRISE team members showed us a real treat: the rover descending on its parachute, as captured by HiRISE.
And image like that is fiendishly difficult to capture. The orbiter is moving, MSL is moving, and the camera itself is a “pushbroom” camera, so the orbiter also has to roll at the right rate so that the chure and lander are captured properly. And they do this all days ahead of time. Essentially they say to the orbiter: “In a few days, look here, and you’ll see something cool.” With the HiRISE image and the lander images, we spent the rest of the night trying to figure out where exactly we landed.
I eventually had to start my shift as ChemCam science payload uplink lead 2 (CCAM sPUL2). The early part of the mission is mostly engineering and health tests so my shift was pretty light, but I still had to be there. I attended the various uplink meetings and was finally just getting ready to head back to the apartment, when we got another downlink. The ChemCam downlink folks were peacefully checking various technical details of the downlink when all of a sudden someone pulled up one of the new images and literally yelled out in surprise at how awesome it was. I can’t share the pictures with you yet, but you’ll see them soon in the press conference and you will be stunned.
I have now been awake for more than 29 hours and haven’t eaten anything but an ice cream sandwich in about 12 hours, but I don’t want to go to sleep because I’m so excited. Landing went so well it is like a dream, and the data we’re getting back is so nice, I have to pinch myself and remind myself that we’ve not looking at computer simulations anymore. We are seeing real data from another planet, and a robot from Earth is there to explore for at least the next couple of years on the very same rocks that I studied from orbit during graduate school. Nobody deserves this kind of luck. I cannot believe how awesome this is.