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Mars Mania ‘Enters, Descends and Lands’ at Johnson Space Center
Mars rover Curiosity digs up five scoopfuls of material

A week prior to the panel discussion, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity uses a mechanism on its robotic arm to dig up five scoopfuls of material from a patch of dusty sand called ''Rocknest,'' producing the five bite-mark pits visible in this image from the rover. Credit: NASA

Miguel San Martin, Devin Kipp, John Connolly, Gavin Mendeck, Richard Kornfeld and Steven Sell

From left: Miguel San Martin, Devin Kipp, John Connolly, Gavin Mendeck, Richard Kornfeld and Steven Sell. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate wowed crowds

JSC's Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate wowed crowds after the panel discussion with a Mars meteorite on display. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

While those of us at Johnson Space Center and in the surrounding community were watching the harrowing “seven minutes of terror” sans breathing during the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL’s) Entry, Decent and Landing (EDL) sequence to the red planet’s surface, NASA engineers and scientists were doing … much of the same.

An elite MSL panel visited JSC to share in more of the excitement and stories surrounding the Curiosity rover’s descent into greatness. Panelists included Devin Kipp, parachute descent segment lead and/or terrain interaction lead; Miguel San Martin, chief engineer, Guidance, Navigation and Control; Richard Kornfeld, deputy EDL phase lead for validation; and Steven Sell, sky crane engineer, all from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Also on the panel was JSC’s own Gavin Mendeck, a guidance and navigation engineer. John Connolly in JSC’s Exploration Mission and Systems Office moderated the event.

Among some of the interesting tidbits of information shared was that the engineers were and felt essentially powerless while waiting for Curiosity to communicate its success back to Earth.

“The last time you can do anything for the spacecraft is two hours before landing,” Sell said.

As Kipp enumerated, “You’re not doing anything on landing night—you’re just watching, helpless.”

Thankfully, Curiosity withstood the 200-mph rollercoaster ride through the Martian atmosphere to settle into red dust, and the rest is history. But it’s a kind of fame that’s been somewhat foreign to NASA … until this point.

“I think our 15 minutes of fame is now in our 16th or 17th minute,” Sell said. “I’m just thankful it brought so much attention to NASA in general. It didn’t actually hit us until landing night. I really credit the social media folks for getting our Twitter handles out there.”

For the MSL team, it’s been a surreal experience. They only realized how momentous the occasion was for themselves and the entire world when they began receiving texts and pictures from people simultaneously watching Curiosity’s entry in places like New York’s Times Square.

There’s also been a lot of mutual admiration from the public and celebrities alike. When the MSL team was invited to the set of “The Big Bang Theory” to meet the cast and watch a taping, the cast was as equally thrilled to be speaking with the MSL team as the MSL team was to socialize with the actors.

Many may also not remember that before Curiosity took off for Mars, the team experienced a very long, two-year launch slip. However, in hindsight, the slip could have been aligned with the stars in providing a best-case scenario for the mission.

“The landing site selection process was a very long process,” Kipp said. “At the time of the slip, we had four candidate landing sites—none of which were Gale Crater. Depending on what we find at Gale Crater, the slip could be the best thing that ever happened.”

While JPL has enjoyed the lion share of the Mars mania, JSC has many engineers and scientists who are still an integral part of this mission. Not only that, but the panelists expressed a huge amount of respect for the work we continue to do for human spaceflight.

“(I was) totally amazed every single shuttle launch,” San Martin said. “What’s being done here is equally amazing. We are in a place that’s done these sort of things time and time again.”

As Sell said of his team jokingly, “Really, we’re just the ‘movers.’ We’re not the scientists.”

They may not be the scientists who will unlock Mars’ secrets and, potentially, find the origin of life on a distant planet. But their colossal “moving job” will enable us to learn more than ever before about our universe. At the same time, MSL has inspired a new generation of explorers unlike any other Mars mission to date.

Can’t get enough of Mars? We can’t either. Join in the fun and learning at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html.
Catherine Ragin Williams