About a quarter million people were watching NASA TV as the Mars rover Curiosity was put down on the surface of Mars. Not bad for 1:30AM on the east coast of the U.S. The room at JPL mission headquarters exploded with shouts, cheers and cries of joy. Of course, these men and a few women were well aware of what was just achieved: The most complex landing procedure of electronic and mechanical equipment ever attempted at such a great distance (roughly 154 million miles/248 million kilometers). Then there is the US$ 2.5 billion invested and the badly needed prestige for NASA. It was a high profile, high stakes effort – and it has succeeded in the first big step.
Landings on Mars are never taken for granted. In fact, so many missions have failed that there was talk of a ‘Mars jinx.’ That implies bad luck, when in fact, luck has had very little to do with it. As the Curiosity landing demonstrates, even the most complex landings are possible, as long as the technology and the planning are right. In short, human effort, and very little luck determines whether a mission like this works or not. So kudos and appreciation for the people who made this possible. Earth has a new ambassador on Mars, the most sophisticated probe/rover so far assembled.
Curiosity will now begin its two year movement around the surface of Mars, as it coordinates its research within the Mars Science Laboratory project. With all the hoopla, it’s easy to momentarily underestimate the work that remains to be done. The rover’s mission is to study Mars for human habitation including its climate and complex geology – and, by the by, look for signs of past or present life on Mars. This is research that will take some time to unfold, but when the excitement of the landing is long forgotten, this is what Curiosity is all about.