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A Life-Changing Landing on Mars

For the past eight years, I've been the Deputy Project Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, with its rover, Curiosity. It's the most ambitious robotic mission ever undertaken by NASA, with scientific goals to match. We're doing no less than delivering a state-of-the-art analytical chemistry laboratory to the surface of Mars, driving it up a three-mile-high stack of layered sediments, and attempting to determine whether our neighbor planet ever offered conditions suitable for life.

Watch members of the Mars Science Laboratory team explain the challenge of landing Curiosity on Mars in this video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Beginning with a one-page list of mission objectives from NASA, thousands of engineers and scientists conceived a mobile robot geochemist, the size and weight of a small car, to be our virtual presence at Gale Crater on Mars. It was designed to be able to safely access more of Mars's surface (allowing the landing site to be chosen for science, not only for safety), live longer, drive farther, and do more than any previous Mars rover. It launched on the biggest rocket available, cruises to Mars in a capsule larger than Apollo's, and flies itself to its landing site, landing on its own wheels on Martian soil. Over 400 scientists around the world are now eagerly waiting its safe arrival on Mars this Sunday night, so we can begin our search for habitable environments within Gale Crater.

Last Thursday, the team of engineers and scientists who designed, built, tested, and operate Curiosity were summoned to the biggest auditorium we have on the campus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a final "all hands" meeting before landing. These meetings are rare--only a few times has the whole team been in a room together in the past eight years. I expected a pep talk--you know, only a week until landing, look how far we've come, etc. But instead we heard a rather profound statement from one of our leaders: After next Sunday, your life will be different. Whether Curiosity lands successfully or not, we all will arrive at a different place in our lives on Monday morning, and everything we've experienced up to this point, the success, the challenges, the nervous excitement, the camaraderie, will be a memory that will fade with time.

I truly hadn't thought about this. Especially as a scientist on the mission, I've been focused mostly on what happens after landing, unlike the many engineers charged with building and testing the rover, or ensuring its safe cruise to Mars and landing. Those engineers will have finished their duties on Sunday, and will join the hundreds of engineers who have already moved on to other projects. But my life will change, too. The years I have spent in conference rooms sweating over details with the engineers, the joy I've had in explaining Curiosity's "terrifying" landing system and thrilling scientific mission (we're climbing a mountain!) with dozens of public audiences, the trials, heartache, and pride in our team's journey to this point, those chapters all will close on Sunday. It made me realize how much my life has become intertwined with this mission and with these people. When all goes well on Sunday, we'll celebrate like crazy, but then that eight years of our journey together will be complete. Life indeed will be different.

I think I feel compelled to write this because I'm one of the people who will continue, even for years, actually! My scientific colleagues and I will tell the world of our discoveries, write papers, and generally take a lot of credit for what happens on Mars. But while I'm still on this side of the landing, I can't shake the fact that I'm the recipient of the talent and passion of over 3,000 engineers who have put their lives into this rover. The scientists will get the keys to the car on Sunday, but we sure didn't build it.

As we said at the launch, and will say one more time on Sunday: Go MSL, and Go Curiosity!

Ashwin Vasavada

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