NASA’s successful Aug. 6 landing of the world’s most ambitious Mars mission to date was a dazzling technical accomplishment that provided a badly needed morale boost to a planetary science community that has gotten mostly bad news in the past two years.
The way NASA downplayed expectations ahead of the “seven minutes of terror” that characterized the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission’s risky Sky Crane landing, one might reasonably conclude the agency had all but resigned itself to yet another disappointment.
No doubt about it, failure would have spelled disaster for an agency that has mortgaged future Mars missions — among other space science projects — for MSL and the budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope.
But despite a two-year launch delay and a much-bigger-than-expected price tag that is putting a pinch on other planetary science programs, the MSL team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) delivered in spectacular fashion.
MSL’s nuclear-powered Curiosity rover is the biggest, most-capable robotic explorer ever built. It is designed to spend at least the next two years helping scientists figure out whether Mars ever harbored life.
The first science results might still be months away, but MSL’s unique landing system has already demonstrated that it is possible to put 1-ton payloads onto the surface of Mars — an important technological step toward retrieving samples from the red planet and eventually sending people there.
As luck would have it, MSL’s landing coincided with the recently concluded Summer Olympic Games in London. Despite the competition for media attention, MSL grabbed headlines worldwide when it nailed its precision landing. NASA’s accomplishment dominated news coverage the entire week, thanks in no small part to two colorful JPL employees: flight director Bobak Ferdowski, whose stars and stripes mohawk haircut became an instant Internet sensation, and Entry, Descent and Landing lead engineer Adam Steltzner, the rebel-rocker-turned-rocket-scientist.
U.S. President Barack Obama said it best when he called JPL to congratulate director Charles Elachi and the rest of the MSL team: “NASA has come a long way from the white shirt, black dark-rimmed glasses and the pocket protectors. You guys are a little cooler than you used to be.”
Obama also made “a personal commitment to protect these critical investments in science and technology.”
If the afterglow of MSL’s thrilling landing translates into more money for planetary science — or even just science in general — then mission accomplished, and then some.