When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars at 1:30 a.m. (EST) on Aug. 5, 50 million people watched the seven-minute landing. For members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—which includes 20 MIT alumni—those seven minutes culminated years of preparation.
“I arrived at JPL in July 2002, and I joke that I worked 10 years for seven minutes,” says engineer Allen Chen ’00, SM ’02. “But it was an amazing seven-minute ride.”
On Oct. 10, Chen, flight director Bobak Ferdowsi SM ’03, and systems engineering and former MIT SPHERES project manager Steve Sell returned to MIT for a panel discussion on the Mars mission.
“Every time I watch video of the landing, I still get nervous,” Ferdowsi says. “It’s very emotional to watch—kind of like sending your kids off to college.”
The discussion covered JPL’s decade-long preparation, the arrival on Mars, the team’s goals, and the sudden fame that comes with a Red Planet landing.
The latter issue was of particular relevance to Ferdowsi, whose memorable hairstyle earned him the nickname “Mohawk Guy,” inspired a viral internet meme, and received a shout-out from President Barack Obama.
“The best you can do is realize that it’s a positive thing,” Ferdowsi says. “You’re an ambassador for the program, and you stress that it’s not a one-person job—it’s a 3,000-person career.”
Chen’s statement upon the Curiosity’s arrival, “Touchdown confirmed—we’re safe on Mars,” became the landing’s signature line.
“Sometimes the engineering aspect is easy,” Chen says. “It’s not all about the problem sets. Its talking about and communicating the issues that can be difficult.”
The landing was the last step of Curiosity’s ten month, 350-million-mile voyage. The rover’s on-planet goals include exploring and assessing the Mars surface, and ultimately reaching Aeolis Mons, the Mars mountain unofficially known as Mount Sharp.
“Before it was, ‘What should we do when we get there?’” Chen says. “Now it’s, ‘We know what we want to do—how should we do it?’”
The Curiosity’s arrival on Mars was precise—the rover successfully landed in its designated two-mile wide area. The landing was aided by the innovative “sky crane,” which accurately lowered the rover to the surface.
“In the past, we were firing cannonballs at Mars,” Chen says. “Now we’re actually trying to steer. We designed a system that allowed the scientists to choose where we would land.”
Many of the images beamed back by the rover show an Earth-like landscape—“It reminds me of the Grand Canyon,” says Ferdowsi—and the team believes that they may have landed in a river bed.
Curiosity’s mission will last until at least 2018, with the potential for a reflight with a new instrument package in 2016 and another orbitter by 2020.