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MSL/MEDLI are on Their Way to Mars
By: Kathy Barnstorff

NASA engineers Michelle Munk and David Way explain the MEDLI -- Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation -- package on the MSL aeroshell that will measure the heating and pressure the Curiosity rover experiences as it flies through the atmosphere of Mars to its landing site. Credit: NASA/Gary Banziger

More than 200 people – NASA Langley employees and their families and members of the public - crammed into the IMAX theatre at the Virginia Air & Space Center, Nov. 26, the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving.

On the big screen – the ultimate adventure video – an out-of-this-world reality show. It was the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosity rover. The spacecraft is heading to the Red Planet in search of evidence that Mars may be able to support life or may have once had environments favorable for life. Curiosity, which is about the size of a Mini-Cooper car, carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times larger than the science-instrument payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

In the crowd were a few NASA Langley employees who had worked on Mars missions, but most of the team had gone to Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch. Alicia Cianciolo, who is one of the engineers on the entry, descent and landing simulation team, took 27 members of her family. They rented two houses to accommodate the group.

MSL lift-off.

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NASA's Mars Science Laboratory lifts-off from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA/Darrell L. McCall

Viewing MSL lift-off from the VASC.

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The crowd watches at the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton as the rocket carrying Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover climbs through Earth’s atmosphere on its way to Mars. Credit: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff

"We had four generations watching the launch," Cianciolo said. "It was awesome. It was great to have the support of my entire family with me. We don't get an opportunity to do our jobs unless the launch is successful."

Simulation team lead David Way also took his family, including four children, to Florida. Reached by phone within minutes of the successful launch and separation, the excitement was obvious in his voice. "All the cameras were rolling," Way said. "The sun had finally poked out, then the butterflies set in. My kids were super excited. My three year old has been asking all week – are we going to see the rocket and today she saw the rocket."

But then the engineer in Way made an appearance. "We watched the rocket and all that kinetic energy – knowing we have to take it all out again to have a successful landing," he added.

Before the big day Way had compared lift-off to an Olympic athlete walking in the opening ceremonies. "You're mostly a spectator. You're just excited to be there," Way said. "You've arrived at the venue and you're getting ready to do your part. For us, our part will be the landing eight and a half months later when Curiosity gets to Mars."

That's true for most of NASA Langley's contribution to MSL. A team here also designed and built MEDLI, the MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation suite, that will measure temperature and pressure as the spacecraft flies through the superhot Martian atmosphere on the way to the surface.

Alan Little, the MEDLI project lead, was also at the launch. "It was great to see MSL and MEDLI depart Earth on their way to Mars," Little said. "It was an incredible feeling – not one that I would have expected when I was young – to know that I helped to create an instrument that may a crucial role in the future of Mars exploration."

Unlike other members of the Langley Mars team Little is a relative newcomer to planetary exploration. When he was young he wanted to be a pilot and during most of his NASA career he has worked in wind tunnels, then earth remote sensing, until as he says he gradually headed up and out of this world.

MEDLI deputy Michelle Munk has been working on Mars missions for 20 years, but that doesn’t mean she's jaded about lift-offs. "It was fantastic, very bright and beautiful," Munk said. "We were all very excited to see it on its way. My 11 and eight year old daughters took some really good pictures and can hardly wait to show their classes and tell them about the launch."

Mars Science Laboratory is set to land next August. A number of Langley's Mars team members will physically move to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California the month before to monitor the spacecraft and fine tune its entry to help Curiosity land safely on the Red planet.

That will be no easy task. "When we get to Mars, we’ll have 7000 lbs of spacecraft traveling at 13,000 mph," said engineer David Way. "In just about seven minutes, we’ll slow the spacecraft all the way down to just under two miles an hour gently landing Curiosity right on her wheels. To do that the onboard computer will have to autonomously execute a complex sequence of events, first using atmospheric drag, then a parachute, and finally rocket engines to slow down."

And the worst part may be is they won't know immediately if they have had success – it takes 10 to 20 minutes for a communications signal to travel from Mars to Earth.


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