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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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Stone Age Bike Age

Will Lord, professional flint-knapper:

"When I was a boy, my family lived in a house in the forest with no modern conveniences. We made bows and arrows and flint arrowheads, and we tanned animal skins.  At the time I wondered if I was missing out on modern-day life. Now I see I was living an incredible childhood adventure -which I'm still living."  

Will and his parents, John and Valerie Lord have spent the last thirty-odd years mastering prehistoric technologies and teaching these skills in classrooms and museums across Britain.  This family looks the part (long hair all round) and dresses the part (leather leggings, pelt ponchos and furry boots.) But this is no gimmick:  the Lords see themselves as keepers of the "skills and art" of their distant ancestors.

In August 2009, Jill (Shinefield, my co-producer) and I enlist John and Will to help us conjure up the people who lived during the heyday of Stonehenge.  On a hazy afternoon, father and son join us, in full regalia, at West Woods, about 20 miles from Stonehenge.  It's a densely wooded area where massive sarsen stones (like those standing at Stonehenge) lie strewn about the forest floor.

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Will Lord as an archer. Photo courtesy: Kevin Tod Haug

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Stonehenge Cemetry

Every summer, they descend on Stonehenge by the thousands to watch the sun rise on the longest day of the year -Pagans, Druids, party animals, foreign exchange students, families with kids, documentary producers.  Some dance, drum or dream the night away; others sip or smoke all manner of mind-altering substances.  When dawn arrives obscured by clouds (or sheets of rain, like the year I tried to attend), no one seems to mind. The vibe is festive and life affirming.  I wonder how many revelers realize they've just boogied down on a sacred burial ground.
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Photo Courtesy of Kevin Tod Haug. Left to right: Mike Coles (DP), Gail Willumsen, & Mike Parker Pearson
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Stonehenge at Dawn

August 26, 2009, 5:24 am --40 minutes to sunrise.  In the Stonehenge parking lot, we huddle by our cars, fumbling with flashlights and drinking coffee from a thermos to ward off the chill. Our cameraman and soundman have unloaded their gear, and we're poised to head into the stone circle for approximately three precious hours of "exclusive access."  But the security guards have decided there's not yet enough ambient light for us to move safely among the stones. So we wait.

The guards are mostly young strapping men.  They wear fluorescent yellow rain jackets that almost glow in the dark, but the rest of their gear is black --trousers, sweaters, gloves, knit caps, and massive flashlights that look a lot like billy clubs.  I wonder how spooky or lonely it might be to patrol Stonehenge all night, and I ask one of the guards.  He chuckles and says he much prefers night shifts to working days.  Why?   He smacks his flashlight rhythmically into the palm of his left hand.  "Because at night you get jumpers."   Jumpers?  "People who jump the fence.  They think no one's looking, that they're gonna get in and touch the stones.  But no jumper has ever got to the stones on my watch. Keeps it interesting. Keeps me fit."

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Bluestonehenge

This fall, a piece of prehistory made a big splash in the news.  "Second Stonehenge Discovered!"  "New Stone Circle Found near Stonehenge!"  If you simply scanned the breathless headlines, you might assume that a ring of giant stones had somehow escaped notice for a few thousand years, just a mile from the mother-of-all-henges.  As a friend asked, "Why didn't anyone spot it until now?"

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 Courtesy of Kevin Tod Haug. Left to right: Keith Rodgerson (sound), Anna Evans-Freke (associate producer), Jill Shinefield, Mike Parker Pearson, Gail Willumsen, Mike Coles (DP)

For starters, the stones are long gone.  For another, the monument is located on the lush banks of the River Avon, prime real estate where most traces of prehistory have been overlaid by lavish country estates. (Apparently Sting owns one.)  Luckily, the owners of one idyllic stretch of riverbank (ideally suited for gin-and-tonics on summer afternoons) allowed archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson and his team to dig there.  Mike's goal had been to pinpoint the end of the Stonehenge Avenue, a processional pathway that begins outside the entrance to Stonehenge, curves for about 2 miles across the landscape, and dead-ends somewhere near the river.  Mike never dreamed he'd find "Stonehenge's Little Sister."

Gail Willumsen

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