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For NASA Rover Team, Many Years of Work and ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’ Paid Off

August 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
It only took minutes for Curiosity to land on Mars. But the celebration of the successful landing -- and the mission itself -- will last much longer. Judy Woodruff talks to science correspondent Miles O'Brien and John Grunsfeld of NASA about Curiosity and the years NASA scientists spent planning the journey to Mars.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: NASA basked today in the glory of a technological tour de force. Overnight, after a 350 million-mile journey, the heaviest, most expensive spacecraft ever to land on Mars was gently set down in a giant crater on the Red Planet.

MAN: Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: The long-awaited words touched off unbridled celebration late Sunday night at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Cheers and hugs marked an emotional climax to a journey of more than eight months for Curiosity. The rover itself even joined the party with a tweet that read: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. Gale Crater, I am in you.”

Just minutes later, Curiosity sent back its first set of black-and-white images from the crater showing its wheel and shadow. The $2.5 billion project came down to what scientists dubbed the ‘seven minutes of terror,’ depicted in NASA animation, a highly complex series of landing maneuvers never before tried.

Curiosity began the atmospheric acrobatics slicing into the thin Martian air at 13,000 miles an hour. A supersonic parachute deployed to help slow the one-ton object as it hurtled toward the planet. Then the heat shield separated from the rover and the parachute came away.

And from there, a kind of sky crane powered by eight rockets supplied the final braking and used a set of cables to lower Curiosity to the surface at a speed of just 2 miles an hour.

From orbit, another U.S. spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, captured actual images of the parachute deploying. Color photos and video of the landing were expected in the next few days.

Meanwhile, back on Earth…

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: … the excitement carried into the post-landing news conference.

Deputy project manager Richard Cook.

RICHARD COOK, deputy project manager: So, that rocked. Seriously, is not that cool or what?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RICHARD COOK: I have been lucky enough to have done this now four times, and it never gets old, seriously. It’s just a great experience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, that it’s on Mars, Curiosity will spend two years collecting samples that may show whether there was ever life on the Red Planet.

The robot is loaded with a number of cameras and other tools, including a power drill and a laser. First, though, engineers will check out the systems before sending the craft on a test drive. Some reaction now on a very big day, first from one of the principal leaders of the NASA team.

John Grunsfeld is an associate administrator at NASA. I spoke with him earlier today after Curiosity landed.

John Grunsfeld, thank you for joining us. And congratulations. I think we heard this in the cheers, but what was the reaction there today?

JOHN GRUNSFELD, associate administrator, NASA: Well, you know it was really interesting, because, you know, this is the culmination of over five years of work, 7,000 people around the country to make the Curiosity rover, the Mars Science Laboratory.

And last night here in Pasadena, Calif. at the Jet Propulsion Lab, the Mars Science Laboratory hit the top of the Mars atmosphere for its seven minutes of terror before it landed safely on the surface.

And at each of the critical events, the guided entry, the parachute opening, the sky crane rockets lighting, the lowering down of the crane, it was just one image of disbelief after another that everything was really coming together and working, to the point that when the sky crane put the Curiosity rover gently on the surface, and we all saw the data that indicated that it had landed, there was almost a moment of silence when people said, wow, it really made it.

And then, of course, the team erupted in just jubilation that it had actually worked. And, fortunately, the Curiosity rover was programmed to take a couple of quick snapshots and send postcards back, little stamps, if you will, of the images at the landing site. It was the start of that jubilation all over again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What were you most worried about on this 350-million-mile mission? Were there any indications of trouble? Or did things go smoothly the whole way?

JOHN GRUNSFELD: Well, amazingly, it was, I would say, pretty smooth the whole way, in fact, so much so that, you know, in the last few days, you know, a few of us were starting to worry, what have we missed?

But this is a very sharp team. They scrutinized everything. We have honed our skills from the Mars Exploration Rovers, from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, our experience at other planets, Cassini orbiting Saturn. We just recently launched the Juno mission to Jupiter.

This is, you know, one of the most talented teams we have at NASA. And at NASA, I think, we have the best of the best on planet Earth, maybe even Mars, too. That is one of the things we will try and find out with Curiosity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are you looking for in the images, in the data coming back from Curiosity? What do you expect to see and to learn?

JOHN GRUNSFELD: Well, these early images are just really engineering images, pictures to tell us a little bit about where we landed. And over the next few hours and over the next couple of days, we will start to get more of a perspective about where we landed.

We targeted the Curiosity rover to land in an area called Gale Crater. And, specifically, it was targeted because it is a very deep crater, and in the middle is a mountain that has been dubbed Mount Sharp after a Celtic geologist.

And in the sides of this mountain, we see evidence that water flowed on Mars. Now, we know that in other places, and we have actually landed now on — with the Phoenix lander on ice. But what we want to study is the history, the water history and the geological history of Mars.

And we can do that. Just as on Earth, we study the Grand Canyon to go back a couple billion years in Earth’s history, on Mars we can go back even further through the study of sedimentary rocks, through the study of the minerals to try and understand, how did Mars form? How did it evolve? What were the conditions like billions of years ago, when Mars was warmer and wetter?

And in those times, could Mars have supported life? And maybe, if we’re — if we hit the grand slam, and there was life on Mars, we might be able to detect in the geology, in the rocks themselves, the chemical signatures of that — what would likely have been — or what we would call microbial life. But that is a long shot.

We just have no idea whether Mars did support life or could have supported life. And that is why we sent Curiosity, to answer that question. It’s part of the quest to answer that fundamental human question that we all want to know, is, are we alone in the universe? Is there life elsewhere?

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Grunsfeld of NASA, thank you again. And congratulations.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: Well, thanks very much.

And I hope everybody looks forward to a very exciting couple of years on Mars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And some perspective on this feat now from NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien. He joins us from Houston.

MILES O’BRIEN: Miles, you could barely wipe — they could barely wipe the smiles off their faces. There was such elation there among the NASA team.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there a different level of excitement about this than — over this than other missions, do you think?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, Judy, I have got a smile on my face just listening to John, thinking about what lies ahead over the couple years, as Curiosity starts exploring Mars in ways we have never seen it.

But the stakes were so high in this case, the Mars program literally on the line, facing budget cuts. There is a lot of concern about what is next after Curiosity. As a matter of fact, even as this landing was occurring, a blue-ribbon panel was going through and replanning future missions because of cuts proposed by the Obama administration which would hit the Mars program very hard.

So, couple that with the fact that it’s $2.5 billion worth of cookies in one basket coming down, not having two rovers, as we had in 2004 with Spirit and Opportunity. And it just ratchets up the pressure in ways that are hard to imagine.

Imagine people having a career where a decade gets baked into that one seven-minute period, and either you get a gold medal, or you don’t show up for work the next day. That is what was going on in that room. And so that eruption makes a lot of sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So they were feeling the pressure from everywhere and from the public. I mean, the — people all over the world were watching this.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, it’s interesting how Mars captivates people, I think, Judy.

I think back to the Pathfinder mission in the early ’90s. That was one of the first great Internet spectacle moments, millions and millions of hits in an era when we were not on the Internet like we were.

Last night surpassed any records we can imagine on Internet access to a news event. What, I think, interests people and what is so exciting about this, it’s really unprecedented if you think about it in history, is the average person, armchair scientists, you and I, have access to the same data at virtually the same time that the scientists do. We can all be on Mars together.

We can all armchair scientifically analyze all this data together. We are all on Mars as part of this effort together. And there’s nothing quite like that in science, really, and there’s nothing quite like that in space.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard John Grunsfeld explain the search for life, micro, macro-bio — I didn’t get the word right, but small life, I guess it is, on Mars, very small life.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much do they know — Miles, help us understand how much they already know and how much yet there is to discover for them.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, what — we have been going through a slow, kind of iterative process of building the story of potential life on Mars.

You know, Spirit and Opportunity were all about settling a question that we think we knew, that at one time Mars was warm and wet. Well, they have brought home just volumes of evidence to say that was in fact the case. We don’t have to debate that one anymore, if there was debate prior.

Now, what else do you need for life? Well, there are three things. You need — wherever we have moisture, wherever we have water on this planet, we have life, wherever we have some source of energy, whether it is the sun or deep down in the ocean coming from the center of the Earth, essentially. And we have to have some sort of carbon material.

Those are the three things for life as we know it. So, we know that water was once there. Now let’s go after this issue of the carbon. And that is what Curiosity is all about. It’s going to go through.

And think about it. You could take a big drill and try to drill a core sample or you could do — take advantage of what Mother Nature did, which was create this huge hole in the ground there with this asteroid three billion years ago, which lays bare all these layers of sediment, which reveal three billion years of history if you know how to read it.

Well, Curiosity knows how to read it. The scientists at — in Pasadena at JPL know how to read it. And we are going to be able to tell the story of just what happened along the way there over these next couple of years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Miles, do we expect — do they expect the information is going to come back in a burst at the end of the two years or in a steady stream for the next 24 months? Do we know that?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, first of all, everybody has got to be a little bit patient on this one.

If you recall, with Spirit and Opportunity, the pictures started coming down almost immediately. Those were sprint missions designed to last 90 days. Of course, Opportunity is still going eight years later. So, based on that math, I think Curiosity could last potentially 30 years, 30 times longer.

The fact is, this is a much more complicated mission. It is baselined for two years, which is one Martian year, 98 weeks. And so they are going to take their time understanding this complex machine, how it operates on Mars.

The first month, we will see some images, for sure. We are not going to see it move probably until September. We are not going to see it drill into a rock until later in the fall. So, it’s going to take a little while. But as it builds up steam, as the pipeline gets going, if you will, we are going to start seeing some science, very intriguing science coming down, I predict.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a very exciting start, and we will try to contain our impatience.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles O’Brien, thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome.