As rover Curiosity lands, Mars exploration program fights for its life

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.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity team member Miguel San Martin, chief engineer, guidance, navigation, and control at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (l.), celebrates with Adam Steltzner, MSL entry, descent and landing (EDL) of the MSL (r.), after the successful landing of Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 5.

Engineers and technicians behind NASA's Mars exploration program once again have turned in a performance worthy of a Michael Phelps: a gentle, pinpoint landing of a 1-ton, Mini Cooper-size rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars.

The $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission – with the heaviest, most capable robotic explorer ever to land on another planet – aims to help determine whether Gale Crater and its central summit, informally known at Mt. Sharp, could have hosted life early in Mars' history.

After an eight-month trip covering some 352 million miles, the rover's unique self-guided landing system planted Curiosity's wheels firmly on Martian soil at 1:14 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the navigation team reported before handing the rover over to a new shift. It took another 14 minutes for the rover's "I'm here" signals to reach Earth.

The landing took place with pinpoint precision: Preliminary data show that the rocket-powered sky crane that lowered Curiosity to the surface on cables set the rover down slightly more than a mile from the base of Mt. Sharp, the ultimate destination scientists have placed on the rover's itinerary. 

"That's extraordinary," says Chuck Baker, one of the planners behind the craft's successful trip.

During a post-landing briefing early Monday morning, John Holdren, President Obama's science adviser, noted that "by any measure this was the most challenging mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration.

"If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well, there's a 1-ton, automobile-sized piece of American ingenuity, and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now," he continued. "It certainly should put any such doubts to rest."

The success comes at a time when the US Mars exploration program is fighting for its life. The Obama administration sent a budget to Capitol Hill earlier this year that would cut funding for the program by 40 percent – a level Scott Hubbard, the first director of the Mars exploration program and former head of NASA's Ames Research Laboratory, has called a "going out of business" budget.

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.

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.

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