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Science Talk

Curiosity Lands on Mars

Less than an hour after NASA received confirmation that the Curiosity rover was safely on the Martian surface, some principal members of the mission briefed the press. This is an edited presentation of that briefing, which started at about 11:20 P.M, Pacific time on August 5th.

Podcast Transcription

Steve:       Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk, posted on August 6th, 2012. I am Steve Mirsky. At 10:39 P.M. Pacific time last night, August 5th, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars. It successfully navigated the so-called seven minutes of terror of the descent and safely delivered the vehicle and its Mars Science Laboratory mission to the surface. At about 11.20 P.M., some of the principal players involved in the mission held a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This is an edited presentation of that press briefing. The first voice you hear is Charles Elachi, director of the JPL.

Elachi:         Well, tonight was a great drama that was played. I felt like an adventure movie, but in reality I kept telling myself, "This is real. This is the real what's happening." And what a fantastic demonstration of what our nation and our agency, you know, can do. I could only think of the words of Teddy Roosevelt as I was sitting there: "It is far better to dare mighty things even though we might fail than to stay in the twilight that knows neither victory nor the defeat"; and the team brought us victory, you know, today. I can also only think about the Olympians. Here we had our team which went to the Olympics, we were not sure we were going to win, but this team came back with the gold. So, thank you guys: We're so proud of you. (Clapping sounds) And just think what an inspiration to the young people in the world by watching what these young people, and old people like me, have accomplished, it's really inspiring. I just was talking to my daughter, and she was crying, you know, about how exciting this is and how inspirational. So, we hope that the tens of millions of people who have been sharing this adventure with us will be the people who will be carrying the torch, you know, in continuing our exploration of the solar system. And what a bargain that we got this mission for us. This movie cost you less than seven bucks per American citizen and look at the excitement that we have brought and the inspiration that we have brought. (clapping) And tonight we just did the landing; tomorrow we're going to start exploring Mars. And next week and next month and next year, we'll be bringing new discoveries every day, every week to all of you. And we're going to continue not only exploring Mars, but exploring the solar system and exploring the university because our curiosity has no limit. Thank you all, and I'm going to introduce you to John Grunsfeld who's the head of space science at NASA. (clapping)

Grunsfeld:   You know we said before landing this afternoon, Charles and I here, that Mars is hard and success is not guaranteed. There are many out in the community who say that NASA has lost its way, that we don't know how to explore that we have lost ourmoxie  . I want you to look around tonight, all those folks with the blue shirts, think about what we've achieved. I think it's fair to say that NASA knows how to explore, we've been exploring, and we're on Mars (clapping) The last eight months, and certainly for the seven minutes of terror, has started to weave, you know, an unbelievable story. As we get ready to transition to surface ops, I think what we really need to pay attention to now is that the Curiosity story is just beginning, and with that I'll turn it over to the team. Pete? That's the guy in charge of this project. (clapping)

Steve:          This is Pete Theisinger.

Theisinger:  (clapping) I think you can tell that the team is ecstatic at tonight's results (laughter). This is an incredible feeling for me personally; not only to be associated with such a tremendous event, but to have the privilege to be able to be asked to lead such an incredible team of people. I mean, as easy as it looked tonight—and it wasn't—but as easy as it looked tonight, it's because of the people in the blue shirts who're standing around you, and because of thousands of others around this country, around the world, who worked on this for seven to eight years to cause this to come to being. I mean, they've done an incredible job, it is—words cannot state the kind of job that they've done. Eight years ago, I stood on this stage, talked to some of you, after the landing of Spirit and then three weeks later after the landing of Opportunity; and I never that I would ever say this that but this is better than that (laughter and clapping). And I especially want to recognize the gentleman whose sitting to my left, and that's Richard Cook. He has blood, sweat and tears into this project—yeah, yeah, yeah (laughter)—but believe me, we would not have been successful without him tonight. And when you look at his record—Pathfinder two MERs and this  one—unparalleled in the country today, I mean just unparalleled (clapping). So, I'll now let him humbly accept your accolades (laughter).

(cheering)

Cook:           So that rocked. Seriously, was that not cool or what? (hooting, shouting and clapping) I have been lucky enough to have done this now four times, and it never gets old. Seriously, it's just a great experience. And there are some people out there—Rob Manning and Dara Sabahi and some of the other folks who have done this as many times—and I know they all just had the exact same experiences that I did tonight, which just gets better every time. This is amazing. Pathfinder was great, but we were young and stupid, frankly (laughter). And now to have an appreciation for how hard it is and how much effort it takes from, as Pete said, a team of hundreds and thousands of people around the world, it's inspiring, and it's a little bit overwhelming at times how much effort has been required, and how much everybody deserves this great success we’ve had. I can't let Pete compliment me without returning it, and, you know, there's the guy who's been in charge of three of these things. That is pretty much, nobody else in the world has that record, to be a project manager for three Mars landings. And so I think that he's going to have that no matter what he does from now on. He's going to know that he's the only guy in the world that's ever done that, so good job.(clapping)

Steve:          Cook introduces Adam Steltzner, who was in charge of actually landing the Rover on Mars.

Cook:           Dr. Steltzner has been the father and the mother and everything in between of the landing system we've built and certainly it's been his biggest proponent. I remember them going to reviews and him saying, "Hey, I think this thing can work, and you guys just have to give the team a chance," seven, eight years ago. And then just stuck with it through every failed test, through every review that didn't quite work out the way we wanted it, and so he really deserves a huge amount of credit for what's happened tonight and hopefully everybody appreciates his contributions. I know I certainly do. ( clapping) So… say something profound.(laughter)

Steltzner:    I'm terribly humbled by this experience. I forever, secretly, have felt that I do not deserve to be in a position of believing the team that I lead, because they are, certainly in sum and largely by count of individual, more capable than I. That great things take many people working together to make them happen is one of the fantastic things of human existence. And in my life, I am and will be forever satisfied if this is the greatest thing that I have ever given. There is a new picture of a new place on Mars, and for me at least, that's the big payoff. And to work as a part of such a talented group of people, shepherded by Pete and Richard—and I'm not just talking about the EDL team; I’m talking about the entire team, soup to nuts; the caliber of people here at JPL, the other centers who contribute—it's a tremendous honor, and it is a humbling experience to work with them. And I think that this nation is a truly great representation of a corner or a piece of humanity that reaches out and explores and conquers and engineers. We are, kind of, tool makers, agriculturalists, pioneers, and that's reflected in the activities and actions and results of tonight (laughter and clapping). A couple of other groups of folks that I'd like to thank, that I think we all are thankful for, are certainly this beautiful theater of tonight. The drama of us all being to able to experience it together comes through the efforts of the Odyssey project and the Odyssey space craft, and that team being able to dip that bent-pipe, UHF telemetry to us, unrivaled in the experience for all of us. And naturally the DCN and the X-band telemetry that really allowed us to back that up, so please a round of applause (clapping).

Steve:          John Grotzinger, chief scientist of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Grotzinger:  Thank you, Adam, for getting us on the surface. I think that is the best picture of Mars I've ever seen (laughter). And I can guarantee you in the days, hours, months and years from now, you're going to be hearing about an incredible science story. And I'm not going to bore you with that tonight. You're going to have to wait for that one. Because on behalf of everybody on the science team, 460 members, we thank everybody that was involved in this enterprise: Charles, Pete, Richard, Adam, everybody that pulled this together. There were over 3500 JPL employees—I won't count contractors and subcontractors, but I'm sure there were thousands more—10 science instruments, nine principal investigators, seven countries, Germany, France, Spain, Russia, Denmark, Britain, Canada; all of us are the beneficiaries of your hard work. We've hardly even scratched the surface. And I just want to leave you with one thought about what this success brings to everybody that is involved in this enterprise: There is no greater inspiration for middle school children that are going into math, science and engineering than a mission to Mars. The number of hits on the Web site is unparalleled; the emphasis on the excitement that this generates is what we bestow upon our children. The money, $2.5 billion—we don't put it in the Rover and send it to Mars, we spend it here on Earth. And Charles mentioned at the beginning that this whole enterprise, if you divide it by every woman, child, man in this country, comes out to be the cost of a movie; I know I speak on behalf of all my colleagues and science, that's a movie I want to see (laughter). So thank you all.(clapping)

Lady voice:        Okay we're going to open it up to questions now from the news media. Let me wait for a microphone to come over to you and go ahead and give us your name and affiliation, right there in the middle of the row, go ahead Craig.

Covault:       Craig Covault with AmericaSpace. Adam, tell us about the landing.(laughter)

Steltzner:    All right Craig. I can't tell you too much about it. I mean, it looks good. I'm being a little flip. In short, it looked extremely clean. We touched down in conditions that were on the more benign side of our nominal expectation, our—by the way I want to preface everything: This is preliminary data scooped with the sieve in the cacophony of the control room during the celebration—very nominal, remarkably good. Our navigation error was on the low side of our expectation, which meant that we probably had a good alignment between the celestial sensors and the inertial sensors, the IMU. Our powered flight appears to have been excellent... if my good friend Ben Tomar is in the house—is Ben in the house? We landed with 140 kilograms of fuel reserves out of a total of 400 kilos that we carried in. And Ben worked quite diligently in stretching the tanks at my insistence, because I was worried we wouldn't have enough fuel, and so I think I owe Ben a little bit of an apology there. (laughter) So it looked good, in short—good and clean. And it looks at least by my eyeball that we landed in a nice flat spot; beautiful, really beautiful.

Rail:             Hi, Sally Rail with Planetary Society and this is for Adam. Are you going to call your daughter Curiosity?

Steltzner:    It is true that I think that Curiosity is perhaps the central defining human attribute, I really do. And Richard and I were both part of the group of people who were in the process of helping winnow down the names that the school kids had taken. And there were, you know, a couple of hundred that we looked at and Curiosity was one of them, and I was smitten from the moment I saw that, and I'm so happy that the rover is Curiosity. My daughter's name will not be Curiosity.

Leo Enright:       Leo Enright from Irish television. The unmannedspaceflight Web site has coordinates for the landing that go down to something like five decimal points (laughter); I just wanted to confirm with you that you do have them, have those coordinates and am I reading those coordinates correctly, when I see that, it looks as though you've landed within 500 meters of the skirt around the mountain; that, I mean, you're really very close to the mountain, at the closer end in the landing ellipse and possibly within striking distance of the phyllosilicate trench?

Steltzner:    I can't confirm that. My estimate—I'm looking for somebody. Yes, there's somebody in the audience here who has that in the tip of their noggin. We should have soon that estimate, but I don't have it to five decimal places; we wouldn't report it to that because we're certain we don't know it to that and I don't know what the unmannedspaceflight.com estimate is.

Leo Enright:       There's a team of people that are working on localization, including what information we got on the way down, you know, on the nav filter; probably taking a picture, looking at the picture and trying to figure out from there where we are. I would imagine by tomorrow's press conference we should have a better idea where it came down within a few hundred meters at least, hopefully.

Tiffy Benth: I am Tiffy Benth of TVBS Taiwan. We also have a live event in Taiwan. This is actually a question from our audience, which is, I think she's, like, around a 10-year-old girl, and she wants to know, if it is possible, if there is any opportunity that JPL would consider to open up the opportunity for students to operate Curiosity in Mars, and especially students from overseas. I want you to know if the answer is yes, I want to sign my name right now (laughter).

Grotzinger:  You know, I got to tell you, in all honestly, first we have to let them wait for the scientists to operate it.(laughter)

Botman:       Henry Botman with Astrobiology magazine. Can you tell us at what time Curiosity touched down, Earth received time, and at what time the first image came back?

Steltzner:    I can tell you the first of those is 10:39 P.M.; the second of those I don’t have.

Amanda:      Amanda Rechter from Scholastic. (laughter) Both Charles and John said that this is very much of an inspiration for young people. Can you tell me what inspired you when you were growing up—what made you decide to join NASA and do all of this amazing work?

Elachi:         Let me start. I was inspired by the first astronauts, the Gemini program, the Apollo program. And specifically, here we are, still in the heart of summer, and I remember being brought into the mess hall at summer camp to look at a small black-and-white TV along with a couple of hundred other boys—it was a boy's camp in central Wisconsin—to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon. And that stuck with me and inspired me to go on to become a physicist, a scientist, to study math and science throughout school. Eventually to apply at the astronaut corps, to go to space. And I hope—it was a dream of mine for this evening, and I think we've achieved that—and for kids today, actually for everyone today, that this landing of Curiosity on the surface of Mars will be an inspiration that will lead people to think about the great science that's ahead of us and to go on to do great things.

Grunsfeld:   I mean, I think the thing, so the kind of—I didn't have a specific activity or thing, like John said, that inspired me, but so much is being able to problem solving. And the thing that we do here and NASA does and JPL does, is we solve problems. And we solve problems that involved, you know, obviously very state-of-the-art activities but also things that require large teams of people working together in a really intimate way that is really different, I think, than almost any other human endeavor. It's amazing to solve a problem as complicated as landing on the surface of Mars, where you're utterly dependent on, you know, a team of a hundred or two hundred or thousand other people to do their parts and to do it, to solve their problems and have all those problems work together. And it's just the scale of that endeavor, that problem solving—that is what got me attracted to working for NASA and for JPL. And I think that's, if I were to talk to my kids or to get kids to go in this field, that's the kind of thing that NASA and JPL does, and it's really, if you're interested in that sort of problem or in that sort of activity, this is the place to come and do it.

Burkhard Bilger:         Burkhard Bilger with The New Yorker. I may be imagining this, but the one time during the landing that the temperature seemed to drop in the room was when Adam asked for OD 278, and they said, "No, we only have 277." What was happening? Was it anything of significance?

Steltzner:    No (laughter). We are, as we're coming in, the navigators are continuing to make OD's—orbital determination: where the space craft is—and updating. And they all have numbers—an estimate, an estimate, an estimate—and they get better as Mars grabs us and the pull of Mars reduces the inherent, some of the uncertainty in that estimate. While that's going on, while EDL is happening, in the EDL war room in a different building—you were seeing it on some of the cameras—the flight dynamics team is running simulations to the ground with our simulation tool based on those updated OD's. And so I'd seen that OD 278 had come up, and I was asking if they had that, because I had it and they hadn't, they didn't have it over there yet, and that was what that was about.

Thompson:  Ian Thompson from The Register.  I have a question for John Grotzinger. You now get the keys to this and you can, sort of, get it moving along. What are the first stages that you'll go through in terms of getting Curiosity out there, and potentially, how long could it survive on Mars beyond the two-year span?

Grotzinger: I'll take a swipe at the first one. You know, we just want to get going first and check out all of the engineering systems and the science instruments. And this is a very, very, very complex space craft compared to what we've done before, and so because of that, we'll go through this long check out period called the commissioning activity period. And Pete and Richard will be watching this very carefully and we're going to make sure that we're firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains there. But nested within those initial tests are going to be science observations. And so we have a plan to begin working through those as we test out the instruments, and in the next few days, you guys will be able to see some of the images. You'll see the results of the instrument health and aliveness checks and how we do. But the best way to think about this mission is on the order of days, weeks, months and years. And we can loosely bound things. I think we expect to spend a couple of weeks, checking things out and then maybe taking the first drive a short distance to some place where we'll go through the second phase of commissioning. And then in a matter of months we hope to have used all of the instruments including the SAM and the CheMin instruments and done some scooping and drilling. And, you know, possibly within a year or so, we could be at the base of Mount Sharp because the place we landed on looks pretty damn interesting, and we just don't want to rush out of there without having studied it real well. So it's, the missions about patience and checking things out carefully.

Cook:           John and I have a bet as to whether or not, how long it will take us to get to Mount Sharp. Because my version of the surface mission is that it's like going on a family vacation and driving from here to Chicago; except for your family has got 400 scientists who want to stop and look at every (laughter) every fossilized whatever they can find. And so, he says it's not going to take that long, and I don't believe him. (laughter)

Grotzinger: Richard's going to win.

Cook:           John is going to search for the biggest ball of twine in Gale (laughter). In terms of the second part of your question, there are no inherent consumables on the spacecraft. We don't have gas or something to be run out of inherently. We tested, the life limiting characteristics tend to be the mechanisms—the motors and those things; they tend to be outside in the cold, so they suffer the greatest thermal highs and lows—and we tested those for three times life, and we don't test them to failure. So the normal mission for this is two years, but I think if it lasts twice that, I don't think anyone will be shocked. And that's the first time anyone's ever got me to say anything more than two years.(laughter) So I think you know, John's right: we've got a long mission ahead of us and because of that and the capabilities of this rover, we have this possibility for just monumental science accomplishments. And the target we've gone to—I mean the Mount Sharp is just, you know, this whole story of Mars, and we're just going to explore and explore and explore across that. The other side of that is, as I've said to the team, and I'll repeat to the press here, is that we're in no hurry, okay. We now have, as I said to the team on 10:32 tonight, we would have a priceless asset, a priceless national asset, okay, and we are not going to—pardon the French here—screw it up, okay. And therefore we'll take our time to understand its condition, and understand if there’s anything that happened during landing that we haven't uncovered yet. We will take our time to make sure that we understand how to operate it in this new and challenging environment. And then we will with slow deliberate, methodical pace, we'll begin the science explorations that the science team wants to take. So be patient with us please, because we'll be patient with curiosity.

Elachi:         Just realize that this second rover we have on operating on the surface of Mars at the same time. That's pretty spectacular to have Opportunity still there eight years later and Curiosity, both doing their thing.

Cook:         Continuous roving presence on the surface of Mars in excess of eight years yeah ( clapping).

>> Also see How to Land Safely on Mars

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