In NASA’s most daring and complex extra-planetary landing, Curiosity touched down on Mars’ Gale Crater early this morning at 1:32 am (ET).
The harrowing seven minutes that brought Curiosity from an atmospheric entry of 13,000 mph to a soft standstill involved a seemingly impossible feat of engineering involving computerized guided flight, parachute deployment and slowing the craft doing supersonic speeds, retrorocket descent, and, in the final 65 feet, a sky-crane lowering of Curiosity to the ground.
The successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory brought an eruption of whoops, hollers, and applause from the more than 400 journalists from around the world and roughly 30 mission control specialists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Within minutes, the first images of Mars taken by Curiosity came in, to more applause.
"I can only think of the Olympics," said a jubilant JPL director Charles Elachi during the ensuing press conference. "Our team went to the Olympics and we weren’t sure they were going to win. But this team came back with the gold.
"This [$2.5 billion] 'movie’ cost less than $7 per American citizen and look at the excitement it produced," he added. "Tomorrow, we are going to start exploring Mars. Next week will bring new discoveries and we continue to explore the solar system and universe, because our curiosity knows no bounds."
The spectacular landing paves the way for at least two years of gathering scientific information about Mars’ formation and whether it once contained life. Moreover, it rejuvenates American pride in a space program that has undergone increasing criticism. Had the landing been unsuccessful, mission leaders stressed that the program has already gleaned a tremendous amount of new technology for industry, and the Mars program would have continued.
"Many say NASA has lost its moxie, but look at what we were able to achieve," said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator, and a former astronaut. "And the rover was made in the U.S. We’re getting ready to transition to the ground. The Curiosity story is just beginning."
Finally, it may inspire a new generation of young people to pursue careers in science and engineering, in similar fashion to the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing. Public interest in Curiosity was so high that NASA’s 7 Minutes of Terror video covering the landing attracted two million hits, and the live webcast crashed the NASA server.
Curiosity will begin its exploration in a couple of weeks, first in the surrounding Gale Crater area, then slowly over the next year, to the base of Mount Sharp.
Flight systems manager Richard Cook wasn’t so sure it would be that fast. "It’ll be like a family vacation—with 200 scientists all wanting to stop and look at every little fossilized piece…"
But that was the culmination of the night. In the hours leading up to the landing, a quirky mixture of scientists, engineers, and celebrity space enthusiasts—Family Guy's Seth Green, Star Trek icon Nichelle Nichols, and Lost in Space's June Lockhart, among others—mixed in the newsroom. Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am made a plea for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programs, while Morgan Freeman was rumored to be safely ensconced in mission control.
The festive atmosphere grew good-naturedly boisterous as the evening progressed. During their press conference, a reporter asked will.i.am and former astronaut Leland Melvin who they were wearing.
Melvin teased back. "Fruit of the Loom."
Click on the slideshow for a look at the event as it unfolded from Sunday afternoon to the wee hours of Monday morning.