PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory nailed a risky, high-stakes descent and landing into an ancient martian crater Aug. 6, setting the stage for an ambitious, two-year mission to look for habitats that may have been suitable for life.

“There are many out in the community who say that NASA has lost its way, that we don’t know how to explore, that we’ve lost our moxie. I think it’s fair to say that NASA knows how to explore, we’ve been exploring and we’re on Mars,” NASA’s associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld told reporters shortly after the 1:32 a.m. EDT touchdown.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said a successful landing was “critically important for the nation.”

“It  allows us to stay on pace for what the president asked us to, getting humans to Mars in the mid-2030s,” Bolden said.

The Mars Science Lab rover, nicknamed Curiosity, was the first spacecraft to make a guided descent on another planet and the first to wrap up its 566-million-kilometer voyage by being lowered to the ground on cables spooled out from a jet-powered aerial platform, known as a “sky crane.”

“I was a basket case in there, I was really on pins and needles,” said Bolden, who joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory flight team in the mission control center for landing.

Seven minutes after touchdown, Curiosity, communicating through NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, relayed its first pictures from the red planet.

One of the  small, low-resolution images, taken with covers still on the camera lenses, showed the rover’s shadow cast on the rocky surface of Mars.

The $2.5-billion mission, billed as NASA’s first astrobiology investigation since the 1970s-ear Viking missions, will unfold slowly, with weeks of instrument checkouts and practice runs on tap before Curiosity sets off to explore a five-kilometer high mound of layered rock rising from the crater floor.

“We’re going to make sure that we’re firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains,” said lead scientist John Grotzinger.

Stop-motion video (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

From the Mars Descent Imager aboard MSL as it descended to the surface of Mars.


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