August 13, 2012
Frank Morring, Jr. and Guy Norris Pasadena, Calif.
By the end of August, the nuclear-powered rover Curiosity will take its first, tentative steps on the surface of Mars, rolling a meter or two forward on its six aluminum wheels across the flat floor of Gale Crater.
By then, controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory here probably will have finished checking out Curiosity's complex systems and calibrating its suite of 10 sophisticated instruments. With plans to spend at least two years exploring the crater and the 18,000-ft. mountain in its center, they are in no hurry.
Even in the unlikely event Curiosity suffers the interplanetary equivalent of a freeway crash that shuts the mission down suddenly and for good, it has already validated another way to put payloads on extraterrestrial surfaces. At a deeper level, it has also given the engineers who invented the now-famous “sky crane” technique more confidence that they know what it will take to do the same thing with humans.
“From an engineering perspective, this was really the linchpin we needed to prove that we can put a metric ton on the surface,” says Doug McQuistion, NASA's Mars exploration director. “That opens the door to all kinds of science instrumentation [and] science missions, whether they're rovers or fixed landers or palletized instrument sets or whatever they might be. All of the studies we've done over the years, we believe that pretty much anything we need to do scientifically or robotically can be done within a metric ton.”
With NASA replanning its robotic and human exploration plans to accommodate lower budgets in the decades ahead, the success of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) landing is sure to add some flexibility to the deliberations. Rather than trying to figure out how to recover from a devastating failure, the Mars program planners will be able to continue on a track to develop options for missions to come.
All of those options will be supported by the skills built up here—and at NASA's Ames, Johnson and Langley field centers, as well as deep-space industrial houses like Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Pioneer Aerospace—that will advance the technologies needed to take the next steps beyond Curiosity.