SCIENCE
08/02/2012 07:57 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

Mars Rover Curiosity Mission: 'A Personal Investment,' Says NASA Engineer (VIDEO)

If NASA's Mars rover Curiosity finds biochemical evidence of life on Mars when it touches down on Sunday, August 5th at 10:31 pm PST, the world's understanding of the Red Planet will be changed forever--and for Adam Steltzner, that's personal.

Adam is the lead engineer at JPL (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory) overseeing the rover's entry, descent, and landing (EDL) on Mars.

The EDL phase of the rover's mission has been dubbed "seven minutes of terror," so you can imagine the pressure Adam and his team are under right now.

I had a chance to speak with him about the intricacies of the mission, those intense seven minutes, and his frazzled nerves. Now I want to know, what are your thoughts on the Curiosity mission? Watch the video above to hear his take and sound off by leaving a comment below. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

ADAM STELTZNER: I have nine years of my life invested in this project, in this effort. I have, along with the whole rest of my team, made life choices that are substantial sacrifices, and to not have that pay off would be a tremendous bummer.

CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. And that's Adam Steltzner. He's talking about Curiosity, the Mars rover that's scheduled to land on Sunday night, Aug. 5, at 10:31 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. He works at JPL, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he's the engineer in charge of Curiosity's entry, descent, and landing.

AS: It takes almost 14 minutes for a signal to go from Mars to Earth, and that’s one of the terrifying pieces of numerology is that it takes us seven minutes to make it from the top of the atmosphere to the bottom and it takes 14 minutes for the signal of how that went to come back to us on Earth and so the first time we hear from the rover, the rover has been either fat, dumb, and happy on the surface or a smokin’ pile of rubble.

CSM: Understandably, Adam's a bit stressed out. I asked him what, in his wildest dreams, would be the ultimate payoff. What if everything went exactly as planned?

AS: A Hazcam image looking at Mount Sharp from a safe landed position would be like, totally awesome for me. I’ve barely even dreamed past that, but if I were to dream past that I’d have to say, a sexy microfossil in a rock somewhere that we find, like a little microbe fossil, wow that would be pretty cool. That would be kinda mindblowing, that would say hey life has occurred in places other than just Earth.

CSM: I think mindblowing is the appropriate term here. But nearly as mindblowing as finding evidence of life on another planet is the process involved in getting a huge rover, aka mobile science station, to that planet. Curiosity's gotta enter the Martian atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than Earth's and slow down enough as it descends through it not to crash into the surface. Adam worked on the last two Mars rover missions, Spirit and Opportunity. I asked him how Curiosity's different.

AS: We employed something called guided entry. We’re repurposing or reusing, recycling, apollo-era guidance algorithms for landing Gemini and Apollo missions with men in the capsule at earth and we’re using that guidance algorithm. Autonomously, Curiosity’s got it all computer programmed inside of her and she’s using it herself to land at Mars. And what that allows us to do is to land in places like Gale Crater, which is a hole with a mountain in it and there’s not a lot of room there. You couldn’t have landed any of the previous missions down inside a spot like Gale crater where the scientists really wanna go. The guided entry allows us to adjust from all sorts of atmospheric uncertainty that we might get on the day that we land. Sky crane and Curiosity take care of the terrain threats, guided entry takes care of the atmosphere threats. And those were the two things that used to kill us, so we vanquished the demons that used to wait for us at Mars, but by doing that we brought those demons inside of ourselves through the complexity we've had to assume, and so now if we’re not successful at Mars, the odds are much higher, it’s because of a feeling of our own, rather than the fates that await us at Mars. And so that puts an added measure of skin in our game for this landing.

CSM: I can't imagine the kind of pressure that Adam and his team at JPL must be under right now. Honestly, he looks pretty good for a guy who's getting no sleep! But seriously, I want to know, what does going to Mars mean to him, personally?

AS: I have a hard time stepping back from that very working tactical position. If I try to, it becomes profound. Actually, I try not to do that that often because when it becomes profound it kind of freaks me out, right. This is a huge investment in time, over 3,148 people from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory alone have worked on this project. Two and a half billion dollars, I’m sure several centuries of human activity have been devoted to this. The payoff of that, the new images--I have a nine-year-old daughter who turns 10 in October and I have a daughter who will be born in September--and being able to contribute meaningfully to the understanding of their universe through the actions of my own is deeply satisfying to myself and a profound human experience. And it comes unfortunately or fortunately at the end of a tremendous risk, personal and professional, so it’s not a light thing.

CSM: No it's not. Are you gearing up for the Curiosity landing? Reach out to me on Facebook, Twitter, or leave a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

See all Talk Nerdy to Me posts.
Like Cara Santa Maria on Facebook.
Follow Cara Santa Maria on Twitter.

PHOTOS: TENSION AND TRIUMPH AS MARS ROVER LANDS SUCCESSFULLY

PHOTO GALLERY
Mars Rover Landing Photos
HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

CONVERSATIONS