August 13, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mars is alluring for space scientists and elusive for space technologists. Earthlings have tried 40 times to fly by, land on or orbit the red planet. Only 16 times have they succeeded in getting any scientific data.
Rockets blow up. Trajectories are missed. Engines sputter. Structures fail to unfold. Sensors conk out. Power runs down. With the distances daunting, the flight profiles complicated and the mission durations long, planetary spaceflight is fraught with peril.
With that in mind, imagine a grizzled senior manager at NASA years ago hearing the first pitch for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL): “We propose to build a nuclear-powered laboratory on wheels, fly it to Mars and drive it around. We're going to use a big disk to slow the spacecraft down. Mars doesn't have much of an atmosphere, but we'll use it as a brake. Next, we'll deploy a parachute to slow some more. Then, we'll cut the parachute and the disk loose. After that, we'll fire some rockets to really slow down. While we're doing that, we'll lower the lab on a rope. Then we're done landing. Except we don't want the rockets to crash onto the rover, so we'll have to cut the rope and fly that stuff away.” Even the description of the technique—sky crane—sounds like an engineering student's wishful way out of a bad design decision. Anyone with practical experience might be tempted to sarcasm: “Why not throw in a perpetual motion machine and make it out of unobtanium!”
But that essentially was the feat at a crater 154 million miles from Earth last week. Now, if things continue to go well, the rover Curiosity will begin exploring for a full Martian year (687 Earth days). With 10 science instruments and five times the mass of Spirit or Opportunity (the Mars Exploration Rovers), Curiosity is by far the most capable craft ever to reach the surface.
Obviously, there is much left to do. No one can be said to have mastered the art of building and operating spacecraft on another planet. But once again, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has proven it is without peers in planetary exploration.
Curiosity's landing has given the U.S. a big space win—and at just the right time. Since winding down the space shuttle program, NASA has been fighting a popular image of being rudderless. It is an unfair characterization in many ways that exaggerates the importance of human spaceflight. One reason NASA “abandoned” its own manned vehicle has to do with its efforts to foster the development of safe, less-expensive commercial means of space transportation—which we wholeheartedly endorse. And while it may not have been a bet-the-company undertaking for NASA's planetary science efforts, failure of MSL would have inflicted grave injury on its Mars program. It would have come just after the U.S. took its foot off the gas, opting out of partnering with the European Space Agency toward a Mars sample return.
It is tempting to portray Curiosity as a daring bet, a roll of the dice. NASA itself cast it as high drama, referring to the entry, descent and landing scheme as “seven minutes of terror.” The heart-pounding in the mission control center in Pasadena, Calif., was palpable. But to think of it only as derring-do sells NASA and the contractors behind MSL short. Even more impressive than the landing itself are the skills, techniques and capabilities that NASA developed to assure itself that it had reduced each of the myriad risks in this extraordinarily ambitious mission to a reasonable level. That know-how can be applied again.
Just as Thomas Edison's most important invention was not the light bulb, but the research and development enterprise at Menlo Park that produced many innovations, MSL's larger significance is in the organization, methodologies and skill sets built up to achieve this remarkable feat. It is a capability that NASA can turn to in the future (see p. 24)—if the U.S. is careful to nurture this precious asset.
The Mars Science Lab is exactly the sort of endeavor NASA should be undertaking (along with its chronically malnourished work in advancing aeronautics technologies). Planetary missions like this capture the imagination and can inspire a new generation to reach for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—which is crucial to future of the aerospace industry.