Whether it is waiting to hear about draft picks or the next release by Apple, there are many things that make enthusiasts hold their breath. When the Curiosity Rover experienced an electrical short on February 27th, I held mine. I acknowledge that this moment is hardly one of the most nail-biting of even this particular mission, but as someone who has gotten sucked into the space and planetary exploration game relatively recently, I am still being reminded that this is not a field for the faint of heart. Space is for the incredibly meticulous and the astoundingly bold.
Growing up I was not particularly enthusiastic about space. In the years since, personal and professional relationships have connected me with people who depend on massive telescopes and Martian rovers as part of their day-to-day lives. Even further, my current job has surrounded me with a nerdy enough crowd that the Philae/Rosetta landing was live-streamed with a wall projector for an entire workday.
Add the social media aspect that allows me to follow the movements and milestones of my favorite spacecraft, and suddenly I am in a situation where the news that Curiosity had experienced an electrical short felt like finding out that a friend was in danger.
The short occurred while Curiosity was attempting to shake a sample of powder from its drill into its arm to be processed, and led to a complete halt while the situation could be assessed. Thankfully a series of tests localized the source of the issue in the drill, and a team will be determining how best to utilize the tool and prevent issues in the future. For now Curiosity will travel on, continuing on its now indefinite mission to assess the habitability of Mars - already 250 days past the originally planned ending date of its mission.
As an outsider, the idea of diagnosing or repairing and electrical short from ~140 million miles away sounds like a scientific and engineering accomplishment in its own right. And then I remember what it took to get Curiosity to the Martian surface in the first place. A friend recently directed me to the NASA/JPL video about the Curiosity landing. The “Seven Minutes of Terror” name for the video is appropriate if a bit ironic, given its 5 minute and 7 second runtime.
After watching this video I must admit that I was inspired. The graphics and the dramatic music got me excited about the sheer audacity of the plan. Just try to imagine the planning meetings that led to this.
My highly simplified dramatization of creating landing sequence:
Scientist 1: Whoa there, Engineer 2! That parachute opening will have to take up 65,000 pounds of force.
Engineer 2: Yup. We got that. But now it will only slow down to about 200 miles per hour.
Engineer 1: That is not nearly slow enough, but I have a solution. Rockets!
Scientist 2: Nice call with the rockets; that could definitely slow us down. But we can’t land with the rockets. They would create a dust storm that would destroy all of the instruments.
Engineer 3: You bet. That is why we will need to create a skycrane that will lower the rover from the rocket-propelled craft and set it on the ground. Then the rocket part can fly away before destroying everything.
Scientists 3: Excellent! So the plan is heat shield, largest supersonic parachute ever, rockets, and then skycrane all within the 7 minute window. Ok then. Who wants lunch?
I imagine that if my younger self had seen a video like this one I probably would have also dreamed of going to space camp. Then, as the internet does, it provided a list of suggested videos that I might also like to watch. With my adrenaline still pumping from the last video, I couldn't help but click on the one with the actual footage of the NASA team reacting to the reports for each stage of the landing sequence in real time. No dramatic music this time, only the genuine terror itself. (Landing is confirmed just after the 3 minute mark)
Years and countless calculations by dozens of researchers all holding their collective breath. And in the end, a reaction worthy of any Superbowl or World Cup Final celebration montage. Perhaps I am a few years behind the times, but I am still amazed and inspired.
And yes, I spent the next undefined amount of time adding Curiosity photos as my backdrop and finding additional missions and landers to add to my Twitter feed. It made me hope for an only slightly altered reality where there are mission posters side-by-side with basketball stars on childhood bedrooms and playground conversations that include phrases like, “Whoa, you have nerves of steel. You should be a rocket scientist!”
One can dream. In the meantime, there are a few spacecraft that I have to check in on.