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Laughter and Jubilation Soften the Tension of Another Amazing Landing on Mars

By Frederick A. Johnsen

JPL staff members respond excitedly as live images from the JPL control room relate the landing progress of the Rover Opportunity
Clutching a copy of a Mars Rover landing timeline, JPL navigator program engineer Randii Wessen (right) and JPL staff members Yvonne Samuel and Mark Whalen respond excitedly as live images from the JPL control room relate the landing progress of the Rover Opportunity January 24, 2004.
Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen.

It's far from routine, landing on Mars. And the excitement in the air at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a charged mixture of suspense and experience as the second of two Mars Rovers bounds across the Martian surface at 9:05 Saturday night, January 24. Monitors carry live images from the crowded JPL Mars Rover control room to throngs of JPL staff on the campus of this NASA Center in the hills above Pasadena, Calif. It's a very curious drama, played out on Earth 11 minutes after it happened 123 million miles away. The Rover Opportunity's fate outstrips the NASA team's comprehension of it by the length of time it takes radio signals to reach Earth.

Picture of Mars Rover team during a press confrence
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, left, shares a laugh with members of the Mars Rover team during a press conference shortly after the landing of the Rover Opportunity on January 24.
Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen.

The plunge to the surface of Mars marks the end of a half-year of guidance for the space probe by the JPL team. As Martian gravity takes over, the en route team's job is done. In the style of airline crews at the end of a transcontinental passenger flight, someone in the control room ceremoniously announces: "On behalf of the entire avionics team I'd like to thank you for flying with us." The control room breaks out in applause and laughter, but only for a moment -- health readings from the Rover must be checked during the rest of its descent.

More than 15 minutes after contact with the surface of Mars, Opportunity is sending signals to Earth indicating it is still rolling in its cocoon of carbon dioxide-filled gas bags. In a press briefing an hour later, Rob Manning, the Rovers' Entry, Descent and Landing Development Manager, explains this was a phantom reading caused by radio signals bouncing off the Martian surface reaching Earth at slightly different times than other signals beaming out in a straight line. "Our truths are often temporary," Manning tells the media with a smile. It's not unusual, in the rush for information shortly after landing, for the JPL team to refine and revise preliminary observations. In the hours and days to follow, they hope to greatly sharpen the point on exactly what happened during Opportunity's arrival on the red planet.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger congratulate members of the JPL team in the control room. Former Vice President Al Gore and former California Governor Pete Wilson pay their respects. In JPL's media center, photographers from around the world capture expressions of anticipation and elation on the faces of workers.

The signaled intact arrival of Opportunity halfway around the planet from its twin, Spirit, which landed 21 days earlier, is a worthy milestone for this team. Opportunity indicates it has survived the gauntlet of atmospheric heating and then impact with the Martian surface. More than half of all the Mars probes launched by several nations have not made it this far. Preliminary signals from Opportunity imply it is lying on its side. This is a contingency for which the machine was designed, and for which JPL has trained. Opportunity's package has the ability to right itself as it opens like the petals of a mechanical flower to let the Rover roam.

By midnight, the celebratory atmosphere at JPL remains, if maybe slightly moderated as the night ages on the clock. And there is much to celebrate; Opportunity appears safe and sound, and Spirit, the Rover that experienced a critical communications breakdown the previous Thursday, has recently responded to commands from Earth to stop repetitious computer activity and enter a sleep phase. JPL navigator program engineer Dr. Randii Wessen expresses optimism that Spirit is regaining a higher order of functionality than its previous diseased state.

These are incredible times, with two Rovers half a planet apart on Mars communicating with the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor overhead. Rob Manning surveys the auditorium at JPL where Rover team members stand shoulder to shoulder with international media, and he registers his respects for the level of brainpower in the room. He tells the crowd all Americans should be proud tonight because the bright minds who pulled off two successful Mars Rover landings represent a cross section of people from all over the country.