Landing on Mars and winning at the Olympics, there is nothing easy about either. On Sunday, August 5th, starting around 11pm our time, you can watch the coverage of the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA.gov. Think about it. A laboratory the size of an SUV, will descend from the Curiosity Lander, deploy its wheels and land at the base of a mountain in a crater on Mars. Then, it will transform itself into a rover and explore for 23 months. Inspiring indeed.
Watching this landing will be a nail biter like watching Olympic competitions. The inspiring stories of the athletes set a context as I settled in to watch the competitions. There are inspiring stories behind this current Mars mission and common themes, like competition, preparation, precision execution, and beauty.
This Mars mission is part of the extraordinary NASA program, led by Olympians in their own realm of competition. The Mars Exploration program is full of behind the scenes competitions, winners and losers. From people at NASA to advocates on Capitol Hill, thousands of people including scientists and engineers, have trained for this landing for over 10 years. There were multiple global competitions leading up to the landing for this rover and its’ instruments. Funding for deep space research has been minimal for many years. Hence, critical competitions assured the best instruments, most capable launcher, and the most precise guidance systems were on board to stick the landing of this rover exactly where it is supposed to be.
Athletes from across the globe were pretty sure they would land in London in plenty of time to participate in the Opening Ceremony on July 29th. Assuming a landing date of August 5th, the journey for the Mars Science Lab and the Curiosity Rover started 8 months and 10 days ago. Like the Olympics, there was a global competition to choose the site for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the site for the Rover landing. There was an international series of workshops to evaluate the competing sites for where the rover would land. Based on previous knowledge gained from the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the scientists decided they wanted to land at the base of the Gale Crater.
If you have been watching the synchronized diving competitions, you saw the athletes had to have perfect paired timing as they hit the diving board to start their dive. As they approached the water, they had to adjust mid-dive to enter the water at the perfect vertical angle. Perfection timing and navigational guidance systems are necessary for this rover to hit its landing site perfectly. And like Olympians, the vehicle has to be prepared for its journey. All instruments had to be built, tested, and tucked onto the 15 foot wide lab/rover called Curiosity.
Previous Mars missions have increased accuracy of navigational systems on the Atlas5 rocket propelling the Curiosity Rover to the Gale Crater over 127 million miles away. The Atlas 5 perfectly inserted the spacecraft into orbit for its journey to Mars. This same rocket was chosen by NASA on Friday, August 3rd to be the launch system for the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser and the Boeing CST 100 Capsule. They are among the winning competitors that will send American astronauts to another laboratory, the International Space Station.
Over 100 scientists examined 12 candidate sites before Gale Crater on Mars was selected. The minerals in the mountain in the middle of the Crater may hold keys to understanding whether organic material existed on Mars in the past. It is known Mars was covered with water initially similar to the chemical composition of water on earth today. Where there is water there may have been life. Over the past three billion years, the water on Mars acidified and eventually evaporated. By examining the sedimentary layers of the mountain in Gale Crater using the onboard instruments, scientists will learn about the chemical composition of Martian minerals.
Competitions were held in 2004 to determine which instruments got to go to Mars. Take a moment and think about the competitions every step along the way for this mission. Each time there was a decision of major importance to be made, NASA leadership had to focus, what is the mission and how are we best able to accomplish this mission? Focus, dedication and a driving goal to achieve. As I listen to the Olympians and their stories, and the story of this last major Martian mission, both have left me inspired.