We’ve done it. Well, not ‘we,’ but NASA did. Landed on Mars. Ignore the fact that it has happened before, and don’t assume that it isn’t amazing just because it has. The logistics behind getting this specific rover to the exact point on Mars where NASA wanted it was amazing. It seriously blew my mind. When you see everything that goes into it, the first thing you think might be ‘there are way too many factors. Too many things that can and will go wrong, no way that this will land without breaking.’ Well, you pessimist, you’d be wrong.
Yes, there was a lot of steps. First, the ‘whole package’ as I have started calling it, enters the atmosphere travelling at about 13,000 mph. The heat shield keeps the package from being damaged when it does enter the atmosphere. Clearly, if it hits the surface at this speed, it is doomed. At this point, communication between NASA and the rover is broken. Unfortunately, this is where it would be most helpful to know what is going on with the rover, seeing as how this is when all of the fun stuff happens. The package deploys a parachute, to slow it down a significant amount, but still not enough. Once it has slowed down enough, jets go off, pointed in the direction of the surface of Mars. Is that enough steps? No, because if the package is lowered with the jets, then the dust blown up towards the package could permanently damage the equipment and make all of the efforts behind it futile. So what happens next? The rover is lowered down on cables while the rest of the package jets off and crashes at a safe distance.
While you are thinking about the steps this package had to undergo in order to succeed, let me recall to your mind the fact that there is still no communication with NASA. All of these are programmed so that the package does it on its own. Now I’ve only ever programmed one thing to do anything, and that was in seventh-grade ‘pre-engineering class’ so it was nowhere near rocket (or rover) science. You skip one little step, and everything goes wrong. Upon going through the steps this package had to perform, I just keep going back to the fact that the people of Earth had no control whatsoever, so if something went wrong, there was no way to correct it. These minutes in the dark were known as the ‘seven minutes of terror.’
On August 6th, 1:00 in the morning, I sat on my laptop, watching the workers at NASA waiting for these seven minutes of terror. When the clock hit 1:30, it started, and it had finally hit me that the animation that was happening on my screen, indicating what was happening, wasn’t just happening on my laptop. This was ACTUALLY HAPPENING. Out there, in the universe, in the solar system, our next-door-neighbor in our solar system.
So next time you’re worrying about the Mike and Ike break up, hoping they’ll get back together, think of how amazing science is. Even if you aren’t a science nerd like me, this is the epitome of awesomeness. It will cheer you up. Thanks for reading, and I hope you are as excited for all of the discoveries coming our way from this rover as I am.