I watched Curiosity’s landing from a large auditorium, filled with a few hundred people very excited and anxious about the coming hours. Gathering a few hours before the landing, all of us were watching lectures by scientists who detailed some of Curiosity’s specialities. The ChemCam, the rover’s very capable robotic arm, and the CheMin were all certainly very impressive instruments. But everyone was also slightly scared about the landing. None of those instruments would matter if the landing did not succeed.
We switched to a live broadcast from the mission control as the time approached closer to the landing. In the past few months, the entire descent and landing sequence had seemed like something out of a movie as I was learning about it1. Now it was about to unfold before our eyes.
As news about the successful completion of each step reached JPL, our auditorium filled with applause. Finally, as the rover’s wheels were confirmed to be on Martian soil, loud cheering filled the entire giant room as the apprehensive tension finally broke, mirroring the scene at JPL visible before us on the live broadcast.
And just a few minutes later, the first two pictures started coming in. They were nothing much, just very low resolution black and white images of Curiosity’s wheels on the Martian surface. But that’s exactly what made them so thrilling. Just a few minutes after we found out that we landed a rover on Mars, we also started getting pictures, visual proof that we had succeeded. It had been quite a bit of time after their landings when the previous rovers on Mars started sending back their first images, but now Curiosity’s nearly immediate two small pictures, in which I could even make out individual rocks sitting next to the rover, made the landing feel just that much more real and tangible in my mind. For a few minutes, the phrase “Dare Mighty Things” I had been seeing all night online made perfect sense. Curiosity was truly an achievement representing all of humanity, the triumph of a people willing to take huge risks, doing very hard work, and then ultimately achieving an equally momentous task.
At the end of the night, I wanted to grab hold of strangers off the streets2, and tell them all about the Mars landing. “We have a new, 1 ton rover on Mars, that got there by a Sky Crane, and is already sending pictures from the surface! Can you believe it?!”
Because I still couldn’t completely believe it myself.