NASA’s Curiosity Rover Landed on Mars 10 Years Ago. It Changed My Life

A decade in the past it was a sky crane, a be-mohawked NASA engineer named Bobak and a $2.5 billion rover known as Curiosity that took my profession in a brand new route. 

Primarily, it was the high-resolution photographs that NASA’s state-of-the-art rolling robotic despatched again from its new everlasting residence on Mars that received me. On the time, for the primary time in human historical past, Earth was a world out of the blue filled with pictures of virtually all the things and everybody, due to smartphones. However it was the crisp photographs of a very empty world that appeared most significant to me, for causes I nonetheless wrestle to place into phrases 10 years later. 

Late on a Sunday night time on Aug. 5, 2012 — the eve of my thirty third birthday — I braced with the remainder of humanity as NASA pulled off a never-before-attempted maneuver, utilizing a system dubbed sky crane to decrease its most superior cellular Martian laboratory to the crimson planet’s floor.  Principally, a particular descent system got here to a hover simply above the bottom, lowered Curiosity on cables, indifferent itself and flew away to crash-land at a protected distance. 

NASA known as the excessive stakes touchdown “seven minutes of terror.” If it did not work completely, years of engineering work and billions of {dollars} could be wasted. 

Curiosity’s autonomous ‘seven minutes of terror’ (footage)

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After all, it did work, and within the course of, mission management cameras caught flight director Bobak Ferdowsi at work in his trademark mohawk, and catapulted him to viral web fame.

In a bizarre method, Ferdowsi — aka “NASA Mohawk Man” — grew to become the picture most related to the Curiosity touchdown. 

Bobak Ferdowsi

Mohawk + science = superior.


However I used to be awestruck by the photographs getting back from Mars, even earlier than Curiosity’s touchdown. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter returned a photograph of the rover making its parachute-assisted descent via the skinny Martian ambiance, with the clear, barren panorama of one other planet under as a backdrop. 

Bear in mind, this was 2012. The iPhone had been round for under 5 years. As a know-how journalist, my days had been consumed by the battle for smartphone supremacy between Apple and Android, the rise of Instagram and a now-shocking quantity of pleasure over one thing known as Google Glass

The cellular and social revolutions had been fairly actually consuming the world, even serving to to topple oppressive regimes within the Arab Spring the earlier 12 months.

And but, such inspiring tales began to look to me extra the exception that proved the rule: Social platforms paired with ubiquitous gadgets boasting not one however two cameras inspired an rising tradition of oversharing and self-obsession. I recall that across the time I began to really feel this manner, I hadn’t anticipated to change into such a grumpy outdated man in my early 30s. 

Thankfully, the picture of Curiosity drifting towards a very alien and empty world, alongside pictures of Ferdowsi and colleagues celebrating an accomplishment over a decade within the making, was the right antidote for my creeping misanthropy.

The prospect of utilizing rising know-how to push our discipline of view ever additional out into the universe, or into the nooks and crannies of unexplored worlds, appeared infinitely extra inspiring than the newest new iPhone characteristic. 

The pictures that rolled in from Curiosity over the months and years that adopted revealed a world that was international but additionally discordantly acquainted. Mars is a dry, useless and dusty world of desolation, however it does look an terrible lot like components of the southwestern United States, which I’ve known as residence for a lot of my grownup life. The colour landscapes despatched again by the rover may simply match into a photograph album of any variety of hikes I’ve taken in components of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. 

As Curiosity was roving these unexplored but eerily recognizable locales, NASA’s Kepler House Telescope was increasing my thoughts and our understanding of the universe even additional with its common discoveries of planets past our photo voltaic system.

Requiem for Kepler? NASA’s pioneering planet-finder (footage)

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For hundreds of years, people may solely converse of lower than a dozen planets that we knew of. It wasn’t till the Nineties that astronomers noticed the primary exoplanet. Kepler added 1000’s of recent worlds to our operating catalog, which is unquestionably lacking billions but to be found — billions of billions, even. 

It is laborious to contemplate which smartphone app presents the right filter for a sundown selfie as soon as you’ve got begun to ponder what sunsets from different suns appear to be.

With out ever declaring a shift, I started writing much less about tech and extra about science, notably planetary science and astronomy. And, after all, no matter Elon Musk and SpaceX and the opposite billionaire house bros received as much as. Say what you’ll about them, however it’s clear that Musk and Jeff Bezos each had related epiphanies that shifted a part of their focus from tech to house. I get it, and I need to see the place it takes them and us. 

Eight years after Curiosity survived its seven minutes of terror, it was adopted by the Perseverance rover, which carried a tiny helicopter known as Ingenuity. The touchdown in February of 2021 and Ingenuity’s flights within the months that adopted had been a welcome distraction from the second 12 months of a grinding pandemic. 

If I am sincere, COVID-19 has made me surprise if I am focusing an excessive amount of on house. Possibly I have been a bit negligent, even decadent, in turning my gaze away from so many issues on Earth to fairly actually make a profession of simply pondering the cosmos.

The jury continues to be out on that for me, however it’s now 10 years after I first grew to become captivated by a robotic named Curiosity and the world briefly fell in love with an engineer named Bobak sporting a punk haircut. I take into consideration the last decade he spent with numerous different engineers and scientists working towards that seven minutes of terror. That group solved the issue of gently place a wheeled science laboratory on one other planet none of us has ever visited and by no means will. That is drawback fixing acumen on an insane stage. 

Curiosity impressed me to ponder the cosmos, however it impressed some more-capable specimens of our species to pursue the cosmos. I think that tackling challenges which can be actually otherworldly in scope will really make these extra urgent challenges right here at residence rather less insurmountable. 

So with an earnestness that I really feel towards only a few robots: Joyful anniversary, Curiosity, and thanks. 

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