Just over five months ago, on May 25, I was zooming along toward the Red Planet with nothing more than a dream and a lot of butterflies in my stomach.
At mission control at JPL, it was do or die time. It was a tough time for the team, knowing that the whole world was watching and by the end of the day they’d be heroes or zeros.
In a short window of seven minutes, the time it takes to go from atmospheric entry to touchdown, all their work of the previous years was put on the line. Around mission control, this phase of entry, descent and landing was affectionately known as the “seven minutes of terror.”
And because it would take over 15 minutes for my signal, traveling at the speed of light, to make the trip from Mars to Earth, my landing would be over before my team knew if it had started.
At 4:46 p.m. (PDT), the first indication that I had entered the Martian atmosphere was received in mission control. For the next seven tense minutes, the team watched. There was nothing more they could do but hope that hundreds of pre-programmed commands would execute correctly.
In the end, my arrival to Mars went better than anyone had hoped. Not only did I do a perfect landing, but also my signal came through loud and clear from the start of atmospheric entry all the way to the ground. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, flying overhead, even snapped a picture as I descended, dangling at the end of my parachute.
One phase of my mission had ended and a new phase was beginning. It was time to open my eyes, look out across the Martian horizon, and pray I’d landed within reach of ice.