Curiosity Landing Keeps Us Awake

Control room celebrates landing. (Image: nasa.gov)

We haven’t watched a single minute of the Olympics in our house. When my kids were smaller we made it a point to learn about and watch both the summer and winter games. We particularly looked for their favorite sports (although it’s not easy to find televised coverage of archery competitions).

I pointed out that we’ve been missing it at the dinner table last night, interrupting a typically obtuse conversation between my kids about the newly discovered caecilian called a Atretochoana eiselti,  a source of particular amusement because it resembles part of the male anatomy. Their hilarity became entirely serious as they assured me they were looking forward to something far more epic, streaming feeds of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. They told me about the little rover’s expected descent. First the craft is slowed from 13,000 mph. to a more manageable 800 mph. with the help of a heat shield. Then it is put into position using a giant parachute and rockets. Finally it is lowered to the surface on a tether before the delivery vehicle zooms away on the last bits of fuel (the procedure more fully explained by Helene’s recent post). They were planning to stay up much of the night to watch this happen.

My husband and I didn’t stay awake long enough, but we were treated to the details this morning. For me it’s almost like customized reporting because what we hear may not make it to the news. I heard that everyone in the control room wore the same polo shirts, but the hairstyles included a mohawk and stars cut into the side of one person’s head, and that they cried in each other’s arms as the first images were beamed back. I heard geological layers that tell the history of Mars are most noticeable in Gale’s Crator where the rover has landed. And I heard updates about earlier rovers Opportunity and Spirit, which have exceeded every expectation. My kids have a particular Wall-E  sort of affection for these rovers. Spirit was launched in 2003 and meant to continue working for 90 days after landing. It continued to work 20 times longer than NASA expected. Even after it got stuck in the sand it kept communicating data until 2010. Opportunity was launched three weeks after Spirit, also expected to continue working for 90 days after landing. It is still clambering over rock and sand, analyzing and sending back information with admirable fortitude.

My kids fully expect Curiosity to succeed every expectation. As my daughter told me, “NASA builds in the awesome.”

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Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.