Adam Steltzner spent nine years working to turn seven minutes of terror into NASA’s finest hour since the landing of Apollo 11 on the Sea of Tranquility. Here is a fascinating insider’s view of one of the most amazing space exploration feats in history.
Here he tells you how, when and why it all happened — a story of invention, camaraderie and courage that ended in triumph when most expected them to fail.
Above everything, the story of EDL — the acronym for the Entry, Descent and Landing phase of the Mars Science Laboratory mission — was hard work, creation, testing and retesting.
There was no magic eureka moment in this challenge. Steltzner — the phase and development lead for EDL — and his team spent their work hours in intense brainstorming sessions. One of them — when they came up with the now famous sky crane — lasted for three days.
Slowly refining previous ideas, turning others around, and then tweaking them all until they got it just right, Steltzner and his rockstar team invented and developed this brilliantly crazy way to land a vehicle on the surface of another planet. All that was left was to wait almost a decade to see if everything worked out as they expected.
The 7-Minute Experience
That moment finally arrived more than eight months after the team delivered the goods to the launch pad. As August 5 approached, everyone’s excitement was turning into nerves. But the night of the EDL, the training took over. As Steltzner puts it, your brain goes into automatic mode. The fear was still there, but everyone was at the top of their game.
It was their all or nothing at all moment, which was exactly the Frank Sinatra song that Steltzner chose to jumpstart the mission. The team bellowed the song in mission control right before the TV cameras started to broadcast, the adrenaline pouring out of their ears. And then, the final countdown began.
A few minutes later, it was all over. As millions watched on TV or the internet, everything worked exactly as planned. Curiosity had landed and the euphoria took over. Later, on the first press conference, Steltzner got emotional talking about his team. He talks about them in this video too, and the melancholia that invaded all of them after all was done. The sadness that they were going to miss each other after such a long time working together.
Hopefully, many of these men and women will work together again. But it’s still not clear what will happen next. America may have shown the world that it still has what it takes to make reality the seemingly impossible. Nobody has the talent, knowledge and technological prowess to pull this kind of feat. The statistics are stubborn. But while NASA had one of the biggest success in the history of interplanetary exploration, the future is quite dark. Steltzner wants to go to Europa, the Jupiter moon where scientists believe there’s life. Not fossils or traces of life, but actual life lurking in its oceans.
But even while that mission would only cost another two billion dollars — all of it to be spent in the country’s economy, not sent to space in bag — there’s nothing planned. Nothing at all.