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A Long Night at JPL

Can you imagine what it must be like to be part of the Mars Science Laboratory team here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory? Thousands of scientists and engineers have invested years in the success of this mission in the interest of advancing our knowledge about Mars. We know from past missions that at least in the past, Mars has had two of the three conditions essential for life: running water and a source of energy. Curiosity could tell us if it ever had the third condition: organic molecules, those long carbon chains that all life as we know it has. Not only will we perhaps learn if Mars has ever had life, we could also learn what happened to it. After all, Mars and our own planet Earth were once on a similar trajectory. But somewhere around 3.5 billion years ago, we can speculate that something on Mars went terribly wrong. As a result, the Mars we see now is terribly inhospitable to life, whereas earth is teeming with it.

Being able to answer these questions, learning about Mars and about Earth, finding out more about the conditions essential to life--all that is at stake. It hinges on the success of tonight's landing, in a little less than an hour from now. But there's much more at stake--the future of continued space exploration and the role it plays in planetary science. A failure tonight could put an end for many years to an already faltering space program. NASA has no large follow-on rovers to Mars planned. MSL is it. Perhaps a success, a perfect landing followed by lots of captivating science, will encourage more planetary missions, more robotic exploration, and perhaps even, someday, a manned mission to Mars.

And no one would deserve it more than the engineers and scientists responsible for this ambitious and risky MSL program. No one could blame them if they had a knot the size of Mars itself in the pit of their collective stomachs. But instead of nerves and jitters, there seems to be a strange calm pervading this group. They've tested and retested and everything seems to be on track. Mike Watkins, MSL's manager of navigation and mission design, just told us things have been looking so good, they didn't even have to make any last minute adjustments in trajectory. And Rob Manning, flight system chief engineer, said he's calmer than he's ever been on this program. The engineers have done all they can, and now it's up to the laws of nature, riding on the back of an amazing group of people's hard work and dedication.

And, of course, for them it will be a long night. The landing is just step one. Then they will be struggling mightily to get some pictures--to get Curiosity to begin to satisfy our own curiosity about Mars.

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