Who performed the most remarkable feat of the past week? It wasn’t in London, on the uneven bars, or the vault, or the track, or in any of the many competitions of the Summer Olympics. The highest mark goes to the engineers, scientists and other bright minds at NASA for the flawless arrival of the Curiosity rover on Mars.
Talk about sticking the landing.
The one-ton Curiosity could not touch down safely in a conventional way, say, enveloped in air bags as Spirit in 2004. NASA needed to devise another route. It came up with a remarkable combination of high-speed maneuvers, retro-rockets and a parachute. Most amazing was the deployment of a set of “sky-cranes,” the rover gently lowered to the surface from a hovering rocket stage.
All of this took place, of course, 352 million miles away from the team in charge at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Here was NASA at its calculated risk-taking best, attempting something never before tried, applying its vast knowledge and executing to perfection.
Now Curiosity can prepare for its mission, a test drive likely in early September, scooping and analyzing Martian dirt by October and later drilling into the surface to collect mineral samples. Among the objectives is exploring for signs of the necessary chemistry for microbial life.
Yet, first, the car-sized rover had to get there. NASA has taken its knocks, many self-inflicted, questions hovering about its purpose and relevance. The arrival of Curiosity provided a reminder of the exhilaration of space exploration and just how good the agency can be.