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Waiting for Curiosity

"Touchdown confirmed." The room erupted with cheers, back-slaps, high-fives, hugs and tears. And that was just among us media representatives, tightly packed into the von Karman auditorium at JPL last night. But our joy couldn't compare to the raw emotion captured on the faces of the Mars Science Laboratory team members in mission control, via live feed. They had chalked up the years of hard work, and put reputations and careers on the line to make history. Curiosity, the most complex robotic rover every built, touched down on Mars in one of the most ingenious (some said "crazy") landing systems ever devised. We were the lucky witnesses and chroniclers of this amazing feat.

Throughout the evening leading up to the landing, members of the MSL team endured the scrutiny of our cameras with the amazing grace of Olympic athletes about to sprint for the gold. Except that for these engineers and scientists, there would be no equivalent of a silver or bronze medal. Only a safe landing for Curiosity would do--or game over. Less than three hours before landing, Tom Rivellini, veteran of several Mars missions and a specialist in landing systems, was the picture of calm. "I can't think of anything we should have done differently. If we'd had more time before launch, I'm not sure what we would have done with it." Then he made a wry grin. "Of course, Mars can always surprise us." Jim Montgomery, an engineer on MSL's radar system, was nearly vibrating with excitement. It was his first Mars mission and, he said, "I'm going to savor every minute of this night, and remember it forever. I'm confident we've done our job and the systems will work."

We caught Adam Steltzner on the JPL Plaza, just as dusk was falling. Lead engineer on MSL's Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) system, Steltzner is a master of the bon mot--so he surprised us when our camera rolled and his eyes welled up with tears, "Tonight my job on this mission is over. I've been involved with an incredible group of people, and now our work is done. The fates will decide."

If the fates were involved last night, they were exceedingly generous. Now two working rovers call the red planet home (Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity remains operational), and three satellites glint in its orbit. The US has had a continuous presence at Mars since 1997, a monumental achievement--yet we still have so much to learn from the red planet. As Mission Scientist John Grotzinger wrote in an essay published in the New York Times, Curiosity is not just a rover, it's a time machine.

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater; in its center, Mount Sharp rises some three miles high. This mountain preserves a record of Mars' history, in layers of rock that Curiosity is equipped to read like chapters in a book. The earliest chapters will take us back three billion years or more, to a time when Mars may have been like a twin of the early Earth--wetter, warmer, with a protective magnetic field and atmosphere. On Earth, traces of that distant time, probably not long after life arose, have been largely erased by tectonic processes. Which means Curiosity may uncover volumes not just about the transformation of Mars into a cold and arid planet, but also about the history of our own planet.

Today, NASA released a stunning photograph taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: suspended from its parachute, MSL plunges toward the surface of Mars. Not only did we land on Mars last night, we also watched our own arrival.

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This reminded me of our interview with planetary geologist Nathalie Cabrol. She believes that exploration is a survival instinct that goes back to the very earliest forms of life. "If a species stays in one place, it is susceptible to any change that comes along. But if it spreads to many environments, some individuals may die, but many more will adapt. The need to explore is there from the start." Cabrol contends that what we call "curiosity" came much later in evolution--when our species became self-aware and gave a name to that spirit of exploration. Last night we followed our curiosity all the way to another planet and looked back at ourselves. The view in both directions was glorious.

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Gail Willumsen

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