Mars Midnight Madness event at the Virginia Air and Space Center. Credit: NASA/Gary Banziger
At 1:30 a.m. EDT, more than 300 people sat in the Virginia Air Space Center's IMAX theater with expectations and uncertainty.
No one could predict what was about to happen.
The screen aired live Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) coverage from NASA television, which showed dozens who were communicating updates from the control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.
As the complex Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) events unfolded, the theater felt breathless.
"Tango Delta," said Jody Davis, an Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) simulation engineer from NASA's Langley Research Center, who was in the "war room," adjacent to the control center at JPL.
On screen, people rose from their seats with joyful emotions. Their celebration was replicated in the theater.
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From the IMAX theater at the Virginia Air and Space Center, guests for Mars Midnight Madness celebrate along with the ground controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which aired live coverage from NASA Television. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
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Michelle Munk, deputy project manager for MEDLI, talked with Mars Midnight Madness guests about the data the instrumentation would provide for future missions. Later that morning, Munk explained the live coverage coming in from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the IMAX theater. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
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This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars the morning of Aug. 6 EDT. It was taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens on one of the rover's front Hazard-Avoidance cameras at one-quarter of full resolution. The camera is the right eye of a stereo pair positioned at the middle of the rover's front side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
About two hours earlier, people arrived at the VASC auditorium for Mars Midnight Madness. Visitors explored the challenges of landing on Mars with hands-on activities.
Timmy, 10-years-old, from Yorktown, Va. attempted to pick up rocks using a rover. He was meeting up with cousins from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia Beach at the event. Ewa Karweta built a Mars colony out of Robotix, complete with a mill for water supply. Evan, 13-years-old, found out that he would weigh about 33 pounds on Mars. Guests listened intently as Thomas Guglielmo, a Langley Aerospace Summer Scholars student and NASA Ambassador talked about MSL challenges and technology.
As visitors grew anxious about what was in store for Curiosity, they had a better understanding of how tough it is to land on Mars. And they knew that MSL had greater obstacles to overcome than past Mars missions.
Landing time was closing in and they began to fill in the IMAX seats. Michelle Munk, deputy project manager for MEDLI (MSL EDL Instrumentation) was at the VASC to talk with the crowd about what was happening on the big screen. She explained that MEDLI, which was built at NASA Langley, would be measuring the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere during entry.
After 1:00 a.m., the lights dimmed and the crowd grew quiet.
"Getting very big in the window," was heard from the control room. Curiosity was getting closer to Mars.
At one minute to crew stage separation, the control room grew tense, as did the theater. That moment was quickly followed by smiles and high-fives.
Munk explained that the "heartbeat," or tones that are sent back to Earth from the lander, had dropped low for a second. She explained that every mission since the Mars Polar Lander, has implemented this technology.
But MSL was still alive and well.
It was announced from JPL that, at seven minutes to entry, Mars was pulling Curiosity in at 12,000 miles per hour.
At 90 seconds from entry, Munk announced that the simulation team from Langley expected to land within 230 meters of the intended target.
Davis appeared on screen as data started coming in from Odyssey.
Someone from the control room announced that MEDLI was measuring heat on the heat shield.
"My boss just texted me and said 'MEDLI rocks. Looking good.' " Munk shared.
With each update that came in from JPL, the theater erupted in applause.
The parachute deployed. The thrusters were enabled, and the vehicle was decelerating. At powered flight, the sky crane started to lower Curiosity.
Thumbnail images of the rover's wheel and the shadow of Curiosity on the surface of Mars appeared on the screen.
"It's truly unbelievable that we just landed a small car on Mars, and got pictures of it a few minutes later," Munk said. "I am really excited and relieved for the whole team. I can't wait to get the MEDLI data, and I am especially looking forward to seeing how the MSL aeroshell performed once we process the data and understand the results."
As guests left the VASC around 2:00 a.m., with sleep in mind, they knew that dreams had become reality. And they were reminded to dream big for themselves.
More than 150,000,000 miles away on Mars, Curiosity is just getting started. And soon, more specifics will come in from the data collected by MEDLI.
The rest, will most certainly be history.
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