Events of November 26, 2011
I was pretty excited as I packed up my bags in my dorm on Wednesday morning. I was excited about being on vacation, I was excited about getting to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and I was excited about getting out of Boston for a few days to visit my mother's family in Worcester. But, in addition to all of those things, I was excited because I knew the Saturday after Thanksgiving was the date that NASA's next Mars rover was set to launch!
The very first Mars rover, Sojourner, landed on Mars in 1997, when I was four years old. I don't remember Sojourner, but I do remember reading about it in all of my science books and magazines a few years later. Sojourner was about the size of a lunch box and couldn't transmit back to Earth on its own -- it had to send signals through its Pathfinder lander. Pathfinder stopped operating before Sojourner, which meant that scientists believe the rover spent at least several days circling the lander, transmitting in vain. It always made me sad to read about that part of the mission in my books -- it reminded me of the scene in The Lion King where Simba is nosing his father's dead body, trying hopelessly to get him to wake up.
The next two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004, when I was eleven, and I remember sitting in bed with my parents the morning after Spirit landed to see the first images on the news. I've followed Spirit and Opportunity through all of their travels since then, cheering as they've kept on keeping on, overcoming obstacles and discovering evidence of ancient water on the red planet. I have a poster about those hardworking twin robots hanging in my room at home. I was heartbroken when the Spirit rover stopped transmitting. (I still don't think I'm emotionally ready to talk about that, actually.) But, it makes me happy to know that Opportunity is still roving almost 8 years after arriving at Mars, even though she was only built to last 90 days.
Spirit and Opportunity fed my interest in all things Mars, and, although it wasn't a rover, I eagerly followed the next mission, the Mars Phoenix Lander. The date of Phoenix's launch, August 4, 2007, ended up being the longest day of my life, because I spent it flying home from a trip to Australia with People to People Student Ambassadors. Since I was on and off airplanes the whole day, I didn't have any time to get to a computer and watch the launch, but I was able to watch the replays the next day. (But I know I'll never forget that day, because it was 48 hours long for me!)
Nine months later, I watched with my family as Phoenix endured "Seven Minutes of Terror", entering the Martian atmosphere and firing its jets to descend to the surface. I screamed joyfully when the control team announced that Phoenix had touched down successfully. I visited the mission website every single day that summer, and into the fall. I celebrated with everyone else when Phoenix confirmed the presence of water ice in the Martian arctic.
Spirit and Opportunity were mobile, but didn't have Phoenix's sophisticated instruments. Phoenix could do science that the rovers couldn't, but it was stationary and could only study rocks within reach of its robotic arm. But NASA's next Mars mission, I took comfort in knowing after Phoenix ceased transmissions, would have the best of both worlds and then some -- a mobile rover with Phoenix-level instruments, a laser beam to sample the chemical makeup of rocks, and a nuclear engine that could keep it roving year-round, unlike solar-powered spacecraft that had to slow down in the Martian winter. This car-sized vehicle would be the most advanced spacecraft we'd ever sent to any planet, and it would hopefully be able to tell us if Mars could ever have supported life. I pored over the digitally-constructed concept art of this new Mars Science Laboratory in my new books and magazines, watching as its shape solidified.
All of the previous rovers had been named by schoolchildren in public contests, so when an online contest to name the Mars Science Laboratory was announced, I was very excited. This was my chance to leave my mark on the history of space exploration, just as Valerie Ambroise and Sofi Collis had done! I wrote that I thought the rover should be named "Goddard", after rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert Goddard, whose ultimate dream had always been travel to Mars. I knew my chances of winning were slim, because, at 16, I was near the upper age limit in the contest, but I submitted my essay anyway. When the finalists were announced, "Goddard" was not among them, but I thought all of those that had been chosen were better. I don't remember which finalist I voted for, but the winning name turned out to be "Curiosity", a name suggested by 12-year-old Clara Ma.
So now, the rover had a name -- a real, familiar name and not a simple descriptive one. And it seemed to fit her very well -- like most machines and ships, it was a "she" -- curiosity about the Universe around us was the reason humanity was now reaching out to the planet Mars. And as I stood next to a full-scale model of the rover at the National Air and Space Museum this summer, I couldn't imagine any other name fitting her as well. She was the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, boxy and gleaming white like the precocious favorite child of Wall-E and Eve, with a single laser eye that glowed a bright, inviting pink. And, having been with her all of those years from concept art to cut metal to the clean room, I felt that she was my friend.
And, as I sat in front of my laptop today, clutching my father's hand tightly as I counted down, one journey ended and another began. Curiosity was the first Mars rover I had seen go from a conceptual rendering to a real vehicle sitting on the launchpad, within the fairing of an Atlas V rocket. The rocket ignited and I watched it streak up, through the clouds, perfect as a dream. The smaller boosters fell away until all that remained was the aeroshell -- the protective capsule carrying the rover -- and the Centaur upper stage that would give it the final push out of Earth's gravity.
This was the part I was the most frightened by. A few weeks before, the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe, also bound for Mars, had made it into Earth orbit but been unable to make the necessary burns to leave. (Engineers are still trying to save Phobos-Grunt, and I pray that they will succeed.) My aunt Elaine, who walked in at this point, remarked that the animation of the aeroshell and upper stage looked like a giant microphone or flashlight floating through space!
But everything went according to plan, and the cameras on the upper stage showed the aeroshell separating, slowly spinning as the sun hit the small solar cells on its surface and made it shine like a gem. Curiosity was on her way to Mars!
The journey to the launch pad is over, but Curiosity's mission is just beginning. In August, she will arrive at Gale Crater, and I know I'll be watching, just as I was with Phoenix, as she descends through the Martian atmosphere, and hopefully touches down, opens her eyes, and starts to stretch her six wheels. And I hope you'll be watching, too. Because she's not just the Mars Science Laboratory rover anymore, not to me. She's my friend, Curiosity.