JEFFREY KAYE: This morning, NASA released the first three-dimensional panoramic photograph taken by its robotic Mars rover, called Spirit. Reporters viewed the image of the landing site through cardboard 3-D glasses. Today's event came after a heady and suspenseful weekend.
SPOKESMAN: There it is. (Cheers and applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: For the scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory involved in the mission, the excitement started Saturday night, when they confirmed the successful arrival of the rover on Mars.
GROUP: Look at that!
JEFFREY KAYE: Three hours after touchdown, there was jubilation again as the first black and white pictures arrived.
SPOKESMAN: Wow, look at this!
JEFFREY KAYE: In the mission control room, exuberance mixed with relief at the sight of the spacecraft and the Martian terrain beyond, a flat rock-strewn plain stretching to the horizon. (Applause)
Steve Squyres, a lead scientist, seemed amazed and elated that everything went so perfectly.
STEVE SQUYRES, Principal Investigator: I have had enormous faith in this team have the very start. The question is always what's Mars going to do to you, what are the winds going to do, are the big rocks going to kill you. Our vehicle could have worked perfectly last night and still died. And there was great relief and elation when we knew that had not happened. It's been fabulous. I mean, I couldn't have dared to write a script that went this well; it's been great.
JEFFREY KAYE: But that script included a tense period, as the spacecraft went through a complex descent and landing sequence.
After a seven month, 300-million-mile journey from Earth, it screamed into the Martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles an hour. In the control room, the flight team monitored signals relayed from the spacecraft.
NASA EMPLOYEE: Atmospheric entry in ... three, two, one. The vehicle has now hit the top of the Martian atmosphere. However, the velocity...
JEFFREY KAYE: The rover was encased in an aeroshell to protect it from the heat. About two minutes before landing, a parachute deployed to slow the vehicle down.
NASA EMPLOYEE: We see a parachute. Parachute has been detected.
JEFFREY KAYE: After jettisoning the heat shield, the lander was lowered on a tether. With a camera and radar guiding its descent, enormous airbags inflated as a protective cocoon around the lander. A few dozen feet off the ground, three rockets fired to slow it even more. The bridle was cut, and at 8:35 p.m. Pacific Time, the lander bounced like a giant beach ball onto the Martian surface.
SPOKESMAN: We got signs of bouncing on the surface. (Applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: In a post-landing briefing, Rob Manning, who heads the landing team, admitted he was astounded by the flawless execution of what he called a "Rube Goldberg" landing method.
ROB MANNING, Landing Operations Manager, JPL: This went to perfection. Everything ... the entry turn, perfect. Of course, you heard about the navigation, perfect -- the communication, the signals, perfect. And we kept the signal all the way through, going through the atmosphere and opening the parachutes, so we can see that very clearly and everything happened right when we expected to happen. If there's any differences, right now I can't tell any differences between what we predicted and what actually happened.
JEFFREY KAYE: While scientists and engineers worried that unforeseen Martian windstorms or a collision with a giant rock might have doomed the mission as it landed, NASA Associate Administrator Edward Weiler said he was most worried about human error.
EDWARD WEILER, NASA: Because one thing I can relate to is being human and making errors. You know? And I'm still amazed when I turn the car key and the car comes on in the morning, and here we are, 100 million miles away and we're landing on Mars.
Even though these are robots, these things are built by humans, and even though we have the best humans on Earth, even the best human on Earth has a bad day occasionally, and worrying about whether someone who soldered a tiny little solder point in a little wire, and even though we had all these independent reviews, that they may have missed it, that's what's getting you.
JEFFREY KAYE: The successful landing on Mars is an exception. Since 1960, two-thirds of the missions to the red planet ended in failure, including recent European and Japanese expeditions. For NASA, reeling from the recent space shuttle disaster and the loss of past Mars missions, this landing was a sweet triumph.
SEAN O'KEEFE: To the Mars exploration rover team. (Applause)
JEFFREY KAYE: NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe helped the Mars team celebrate. The agency is spending $800 million on this and the next Mars mission, now approaching the planet.
SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA Administrator: This is a big night for NASA. We are back.
JEFFREY KAYE: For the flight team, the exuberance of the landing is tempered by the knowledge of the challenges ahead.
Over the next week, if everything goes according to plan, the six-wheeled rover will slowly and fully unfold before rolling off its pad to explore the Martian surface. The multi-step process is almost as complicated as the landing.
STEVE SQUYRES: We had to take our rover and fold it up into a very tight, compact configuration and do this sort of reverse origami trick afterwards to unfold it and actually make it look like a vehicle. The rover needs to be lifted up using basically a jack. It's this device under the rover that will lift it up, and then the front wheels have to rotate and fold out like that, and then lock, latch into place. The rear wheels have to come back and latch into place.
Right now, we are fastened down to the lander with some great big electrical cables. We got to cut those cables to get these basically explosive-powered guillotines that are going to cut the cables as we go along. You do that kind of stuff carefully when you've got a $400 million piece of hardware on another planet.
JEFFREY KAYE: The rover is a robotic geologist equipped with tools and sensors.
When it begins roaming the landscape, its mission will be to search for evidence that water, essential to life, once existed on Mars. Scientists believe that the landing site, Gusev Crater, just south of the planet's equator, might have once held a giant lake fed by water flowing into it through a gorge. Researchers hope the carefully selected site is rich in sedimentary rock, showing that the planet, now dry and desiccated, might have once have been warmer and wetter.
STEVE SQUYRES: If you'd let me draw the "X" we ... that's where we came down. It's got enough rock that we can do what we set out to do. We are there to look at the rocks and find the story that they have to tell us. At the same time, we don't have big boulders. We don't have great, big hunks of rock around that we would have to somehow climb over or steer around. It's a surface that's made for driving. It's made to order for our vehicle. It's perfect.
JEFFREY KAYE: The images now streaming to Earth will assist scientists as they decide which way to send the rover during its three-month-long mission. This morning, scientists announced Spirit's first trip on the surface would likely be towards this depression, about 30 to 60 feet away from the rover. Dubbed "Sleepy Hollow" by the Mars team, they think it's either an impact crater or a product of wind erosion.
STEVE SQUYRES: We've come to realize that while Sleepy Hollow is the nearest one of these things and obviously the most appealing one to go to because it's the one we see best, there are actually a lot these, there may be dozens of them around.
JEFFREY KAYE: Spirit may soon have company on Mars. Another rover, a twin called Opportunity, is scheduled to land Jan. 24.