January 4, 2004
It is about 1 am in Pasadena, California. The freeway for Los Angeles is almost empty but at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the action is just beginning. There are feverish activity at the workstation as we get set for our day of reckoning.
The watches at mission control are set to Martian sol (duration 24 hrs 37 min). Outside, it’s day or night; inside, the normal ‘Earth’ watch loses relevance — the Martian sol is the reference frame for all communication. ‘‘Spirit’’ is headed for Mars at an incredible 30,000 kph. It has already travelled 300 million miles.
Yet, the most hazardous portion of the journey is not the seven months it has travelled through interplanetary space nor the fiery launch that we witnessed at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is the few minutes it will travel through the Martian atmosphere to land on the Red Planet. We call it the EDL sequence — Entry, Descent, Landing sequence, by far, the hardest of manoeuvres in spacecraft propulsion today. Years of torturous hard work could yield incredible results and a place in history as the fourth successful Martian landing in human history or be forgotten.
The courtyard of the auditorium where we have often stepped out for a whiff of fresh air is teeming with journalists from 600 news organisations. Nobody would have believed that you could land a spacecraft on Mars, drive a rover and do some spectacular science at a $200-million budget, the cost of making Titanic.
The heady sense of disbelief, when we first heard back from the rover, saying that it had survived the landing, is unforgettable. It beats anything I have experienced in my life. The first signals from the spacecraft on your computer screen are almost ethereal: you almost imagine that your eyes are playing tricks on you.
Since then, there have been four NASA missions to the Red Planet, two have failed and two have returned gigabytes of data that have changed our understanding. However, the path to Mars has been fraught with failures. One out of two missions has been lost mostly when trying to enter the Martian atmosphere.
I have known the people here for sometime: we have gone through gruelling Operation Readiness Tests. We have devoted hours and days on end. We have watched the launch of the rovers over the Atlantic, and celebrated the launch with a party on the beach at midnight. People have moved half way across the country with their wives, dogs and their lives to be at JPL, to be part of this huge endeavour. The commitment is huge, the responsibility awesome, but the thrill of being at the frontiers of human knowledge makes it worthwhile at the end of the day.
The author is with the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission (2004)
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