Awaiting Curiosity’s Fate

As the rover rocketed down to the Martian surface, the team at JPL could only wait and hope.

When the pictures started coming in, nervous anticipation turned to celebration. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

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The control room explodes in cheers, hugs, pumping fists, high fives and tears. Reporters applause. Before you can catch your breath, an image from Curiosity’s rear “hazcam” (hazard camera) appears on the screen. Curiosity’s shadow is cast onto flat terrain during a late Martian afternoon. One of its wheels is captured in the corner of the image.

“It’s the wheel, it’s the wheel!” someone shouts in the control room. “We’re down on Mars!”

Watching all this from the newsroom – the lightning fast succession of milestones, the cheers and tears, the first images – is just incredible. NASA has just landed a one-ton rover the size of an SUV with a series of risky and daring maneuvers – any one of which could have doomed the spacecraft.

Within a few minutes, Curiosity’s science and engineering teams emerge on the mall to head for their triumphant press conference.

“Unbelievable. Unbelievable. It was like it was fake, it was so perfect,” says Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. To get back images so quickly, while possible, “was a shock,” he says. “The fact that we got one was amazing, the fact that we got two was impossible to believe.”

James Garvin, chief scientist for the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at Goddard Spaceflight Center, reflects on the mission’s place in history as he walks toward the press conference.

“Eleven years ago this was a dream, and now we’re on Mars,” he says. “This is Apollo without astronauts … and these guys have never missed. You give them a chance and they do amazing things.”

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