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Zoe P. Strassfield

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Letter to Gale Crater

Posted: 08/24/2012 3:27 pm

To:
Curiosity MSL
Bradbury Landing, near base of Mount Sharp
Gale Crater
Aeolis Quadrangle
Mars

Dear Curiosity,

I'm sorry for not writing sooner. Like you, I was spending the past two weeks recovering from my big trip, getting settled, taking lots of pictures and spending some much-welcome time resting and focusing on my health before moving on to other things. And, as I'm sure you're aware, time never flies faster than when you're trying to relax! (Also, August days are half as short as those of any other month. At least on Earth.) But now, you've taken your first steps, and I've gotten back to my writing.

But don't think I've forgotten you. We're friends, after all! I've been visiting the NASA website every day to look at your photos and videos. (As well as the nice music videos some of your other friends have made about you -- this one is hilarious and this one is what I think of every time the song from it comes on the radio!)

At first, I wasn't sure how I was going to get to see your arrival on Mars -- I was supposed to leave D.C. the day before, and while my parents and I talked about flying to California for a day to watch at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the logistics just weren't friendly. Then, two NASA scientists gave a presentation about your mission for Congressional staff, and they mentioned that there would be a live-stream of the event at NASA Headquarters on the night of the landing. I made plans to stay an extra night in Washington, but I wasn't sure how I'd get to and from Headquarters in the middle of the night after the Metro stopped running.

Finally, we remembered that there was a hotel across the street from NASA HQ, so I made a reservation to stay there for one night.

So, on Sunday morning, I loaded my suitcases into a taxi at the BU dorm and headed for the Residence Inn in Federal Center Southwest. I showed up a little before check-in time, so I left my bags with the staff and headed to the National Air and Space Museum, because I didn't think I'd have time to visit again the next day.

It felt really appropriate wandering among models of your predecessors -- all the way back to the Viking in 1976!

In the Exploring the Planets gallery, I pointed out a model of your older siblings, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers who came to Mars in 2004, to a family. (There's only one model in the exhibit, and they both look the same, so I don't think the model is supposed to be either one in particular, but for some reason, I think of it as representing Spirit.)

"There's a robot just like that on Mars right now, exploring the surface. And there's another landing tonight!" I told them.

"What time tonight? Will it be on the news?" The mother asked, excited by the possibility of watching with her kids.

"1:31 a.m. D.C. time." I said.

"Oh. Such a shame it won't be when they'll be awake to see it."

"You're probably better off looking at the TV news and the papers tomorrow." I told her. I remembered hearing about Spirit's landing on television the morning after it had landed.

"Okay, we'll do that!" She told me, and the family moved on to look at something else.

When I got back to the hotel, I took my suitcases up to my room and went to dinner at a restaurant a few blocks away. Then, I called the front desk to request a wake-up call at 10:30 p.m.

"Ten-thirty p.m.?" The man at the front desk asked, thinking he'd misheard.

"Yup, ten-thirty p.m.. I'm going across the street to watch the Curiosity rover land on Mars and the doors open at 11." I explained.

"Oh, so that's why everyone is asking for wake-up calls at 10:30 and 11 p.m.!"

I took a warm shower and crawled into bed, but I don't think I really got any sleep. It wasn't that I was nervous or excited, really, my brain just wasn't used to trying to sleep at 7:45 p.m. and I kept thinking of all sorts of random other things no matter how much I tried to relax because I knew I'd need to be rested to watch your landing.

When the wake-up call came, I jumped in the shower again to shake the cobwebs from my head, got dressed, and put a NASA insignia temporary tattoo on my arm. (On my own, with cold water, in semi-darkness -- but it came out great!) After making sure I had everything, I headed to the elevator and crossed the street.

There were a few people sitting on the sidewalk outside the Visitor Entrance when I got there.

"Are you here for the Curiosity landing?" I asked.

The group responded with various excited affirmations.

"Good, then I'm in the right place!" I said.

"Do you want a Marscake or some peanuts?" One person asked me.

Marscakes, unlike mooncakes, are apparently chocolate cupcakes with red icing and sprinkles, and given my non-consumption of sweets, I politely declined. However, I was happy to have a few peanuts, which the group explained to me were a JPL tradition. (I had never heard of this until that moment, although it's amusingly become common knowledge since the landing.)

I watched two people from the group play "War" with space flashcards (the winner was the one whose spacecraft had the higher number in the "weight" column -- poor Telstar 1 lost to everything), while the rest of us played space songs on our mobile devices. I got the first of many compliments on my temporary tattoo.

I am among my people, I thought, smiling.

A short time later, the guards opened the doors and we headed inside, through the lobby and into the auditorium, where the NASA TV landing coverage was being projected onto a large screen. We were offered souvenir folders containing information sheets about your abilities and tools, mission pins, 3-D glasses, and -- to my great joy -- a specially-produced comic book!

I recognized Bob Jacobs, one of my bosses from my internship at the NASA HQ Office of Communications last year, and ran up to say hello. He recognized me as well, and told me he was glad to see me there for the landing.

"In your professional opinion, should I be worried?" I asked. The problems that the Phobos-Grunt and Akatsuki probes had experienced in the past two years had reminded me that while scientists and engineers are much better at sending probes to other planets than they used to be, these missions are ultimately very difficult and success is never assured.

"About life in general or about MSL?" He replied, making me laugh away my tension. "You shouldn't worry, we've had a 100-percent success rate for landing rovers on Mars so far, and we've been getting much better at Mars in general recently -- NASA hasn't had a failure since the Polar Lander back in '99."

Thus reassured, I found a seat and settled in to watch the feed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On the screen, we could see that the engineers were well-stocked with their own supply of peanuts. The doors opened at 11 p.m., and your spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere at 1:10 a.m., but the intervening two hours passed far quicker than I expected, watching the feed, cracking jokes and swapping stories. As atmospheric entry got closer and closer, I watched as the NASA TV reporters interviewed several individuals involved with the mission, including Clara Ma, the young woman responsible for your name.

Showing my incurable lack of trend-spotting ability, while I noticed Flight Director Bobak Ferdowski's now-famous hairstyle, I thought it was attention-grabbing but paid it no special attention. I looked at the room as a whole, taking in all of the faces.

Most of the interviewees shared my excitement, but a few also mentioned things that could go wrong -- some that I hadn't even thought of! For instance, one engineer told us that if the communications set-up didn't work out, you could have landed perfectly, but it might have been several days before anyone on Earth would know!

Once your cruise stage was jettisoned, it was "serious" time. I'd been "there" before four years earlier, watching your cousin Phoenix go through the same entry and descent milestones in its own "Seven Minutes of Terror," but that had been in my living room, watching on a desktop computer screen, with nobody else around but my family. It was so different in a big auditorium like this!

The controllers said that the signal was strong and they could hear your "heartbeat" loud and clear, prompting some cheers in the auditorium. I smiled, but didn't make any noise. I wanted to hear everything that went on, and I didn't want to celebrate until the touchdown signal was received.

"Seven minutes to entry."

The reporters did one final interview, in which the controller said that if everything went well, we'd be able to see images very soon after landing.

"Right now, Curiosity's still a spacecraft, not really an aircraft yet." He said.

In the auditorium, most side-conversation stopped. The sounds of people shifting in their seats, typing on keyboards, and coughing became apparent.

"The vehicle has just reported, via tones, that it has started guided entry!" A controller announced.

It was weird to think that, because of the great distance between Earth and Mars, you were already on the surface by the time we received these first signals -- we just didn't know in what shape!

"Everything looks fine, and is as expected."

On my tape recorder, I can hear myself muttering, "OK... OK..." repeatedly as entry and descent proceeded.

"We're flying almost horizontally, like a plane."

"Mach 2.4, at an altitude of 17 kilometers up."

I watched the screen intently, although it showed only the blue-shirted controllers staring at their own computer screens, even more nervous than we in the auditorium were! There was no way to get a view of your vehicle as it must have looked, streaking through the butterscotch Martian sky like an oversized meteor.

"Fifteen kilometers altitude."

"Parachute deployed. Parachute deployment."

"Yesss." Someone in the auditorium whispered. More clapping, although I refrained again. It wasn't over until touchdown.

"We are decelerating."

"Standing by in preparation for powered flight."

My toes could fall off right now and I wouldn't even realize it, I thought.

"We are in powered flight." Again, no view-from-Mars was possible, but I'd seen the conceptual animations frequently enough to know what this looked like in my mind's eye -- your special jetpack firing to gently lower you towards the Martian surface.

"Standing by for Skycrane." This was it. The unknown, the unprecedented. You were separating from your jetpack and being lowered gently to the ground on cables.

Phoenix, like the Vikings before it, had been a stationary lander, built with jets on its underside that let it descend all the way to the surface with them firing. But a wheeled rover didn't have that option, and unlike your smaller siblings, you were too big to bounce down in a pyramid of airbags. So this was the only way to reach the surface -- lowered from above until your wheels touched the ground.

"Skycrane has started."

Nervous laughter.

"Nominal." Space-talk for "good", we all knew.

Absolute silence.

"Touchdown confirmed. Wheels down on Mars."

The control room, the auditorium, and every other room on Earth where people were watching the landing exploded in celebration. We clapped our hands raw, screamed our lungs out, and jumped out of our seats, hopping up and down in joy. I ran over to hug several of the NASA officials who were watching in the first row, and offered peanuts to Charles Gay, the deputy head of the Science Mission Directorate -- probably the highest-ranking person responsible for the mission who was there with us and not in Pasadena.

And then, while we were still celebrating loudly, another announcement from the control room:

"We've got thumbnails."

Images? Images already?

"Images! Images!" We cheered, as they were displayed on the screen. A small photograph of your wheel and the landscape around you, fuzzy, taken through a dust cover and black-and-white, true, but an image from a robot on the surface of another world mere what-felt-like-seconds after it had landed!

Icing on the cake wasn't a strong enough metaphor. This was... um... another whole cake on top of the cake?

My dad had asked me to call him as soon as we knew the touchdown had been successful, but the images had drawn my attention for a little bit longer. Nonetheless, I called him after the first image came in, although I had to shout for him to hear me over everyone else's cheers!

And then, more thumbnails! They kept coming in!

"That's the shadow, of the Curiosity rover, on the surface of Mars!"

We clapped and cheered, and then Mr. Jacobs stood up and asked Mr. Gay from the Science Mission Directorate to stand up and "say a few words." He had to wait half a minute to begin, because we all cheered for him after that was said.

"I really don't know what to say, this has been a long time coming, a lot of people have worked really long and really hard to make this happen. I want to thank you all for coming here tonight and being part of this. I can't think of a better way of spending this evening than with a room full of friends, enjoying this. I think that this is just beginning, the discoveries are going to start to come, it's going to be terribly exciting, don't stop watching Mars Curiosity after this landing. Stay tuned, it's going to be fantastic. Thank you all for coming out tonight." We gave him another round of applause.

"And you're welcome to stay until 4:00 a.m.! At which point, this room turns into a pumpkin!"

I remarked to my friends that Mr. Gay was lucky there wasn't a swimming pool around, or we might have picked him up and thrown him in celebration, like what happened to Guenter Wendt after Apollo 11! As it was, we let him go home to some well-deserved rest as we applauded yet again.

Most people filtered out of the auditorium now, but I stayed, along with a few other people, to see the 3:00 a.m. news conference. I picked up my tape recorder from where it had been recording, under my seat, and tried to sign-off coherently, despite having been awake for 15 hours and counting.

"1:43 a.m., Jul-August 6, 2012, um, wheels down on Mars, end recording." I said, shutting the recorder off.

The few of us who remained relaxed and joked, several of them complimenting me on my temporary tattoo.

It really was incredible how much work had gone into the mission -- like Mr. Gay had said, so many people had been involved in your design, and construction, and testing, and launch, and 8-month interplanetary cruise and then this entry and landing -- and that was just on the MSL team! The Mars Odyssey spacecraft, already in Mars orbit, had transmitted your signals all throughout the descent, and there was exactly the same sort of huge team behind it -- and behind each of the previous missions that had led up to this, all the way back to Sojourner... no, Viking... no, Mariner 4... no, Ranger... no, Luna... Sputnik... Goddard, Tsiolkovsky, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus...

It really was a vast unbroken chain that extended back into history, a mountain of contributions built one stone at a time, a chain that also extended into the future, beginning with us, beginning with that night, beginning with there, in Gale Crater and in the auditorium. Now, it was time to go home, time to sleep, but in the morning, when the Odyssey spacecraft passed over again, when the next observations came back and we enthusiasts went out into the world to tell our friends of what had happened that night and why it had mattered, we would begin to add our own contributions to that ever-growing mountain. The story of our exploration of Mars is being written every day, and I look forward to seeing what you add, Curiosity!

I thought of something Carl Sagan had said in his Cosmos television series when describing how his own work on the Viking missions had been enabled by so many others:

"Science is a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations. When it permits us to see the far side of some new horizon, we remember those who prepared the way -- seeing for them also."

Your friend,

Zoe

 
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