As rover Curiosity lands, Mars exploration program fights for its life (+video)
The pinpoint landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars early Monday went as planned, to the jubilation of NASA scientists. But the budget for the Mars program is on the chopping block, as Washington grapples with debt and deficit.
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NASA officials and planetary scientists have been meeting to see what sort of program they can salvage. Even if cuts end up less drastic than 40 percent, concerns over how to deal with the deficit and federal debt in Washington point to austere times ahead.Skip to next paragraph
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But for now, budget battles in Washington are taking a back seat to the elation at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory over its latest success. As of Monday, NASA's success rate at sending missions to Mars has risen from 72 percent to 74 percent since the Mariner missions of the mid-1960s, with a 88 percent success rate in placing landers and rovers on the surface.
In keeping with tradition, the flight team in mission control broke open the peanut jars to mark the mission's transition from cruise phase to reentry phase.
Each passing milestone on Curiosity's descent was met with louder applause, and status updates were delivered with an increasing sense of excitement.
With news of the craft's touchdown, the team rose from its orderly rows of consoles to become a roiling sea of powder-blue shirts flowing through the control room, sharing hugs, high-fives, and applause.
Two minutes later, the first thumbnail images – fuzzy black-and-white pictures of the Martian surface taken with the rover's hazard-avoidance cameras – appeared as planned on screens in mission control.
From within that moving sea of powder blue, voices exclaimed: "We are wheels-down on Mars! Oh my God, we made it, we made it!"
Now comes the lengthy process of checking out Curiosity's systems and its package of 10 scientific instruments. Even during those initial tests, researchers say they expect to see something new.
Given the mission's $2.5 billion price tag, engineers will be patient and methodical in getting the rover ready for its science agenda.
"We're going to make sure that we're firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains" of Gale Crater's floor, said John Grotzinger, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and Curiosity's project scientist. He anticipates that within a year, the rover could reach Mt. Sharp, after analyzing flatter terrain that looks interesting in its own right.
But deputy mission manager Richard Cook wryly hints that the team may take longer to reach the mountain than Dr. Grotzinger lets on.
"My version of a surface mission is that it's like going on a family vacation and driving from here to Chicago – except your family is 400 scientists who want to stop and look at every fossilized whatever they can find," he says. "He says it's not going to take that long, but I don't believe him."
And the $2.5 billion price tag? That works out to about $8 for every man, woman, and child in the United States – in many parts of the country the price of a movie ticket.
And Mars "is a movie I want to see," Grotzinger says.