Space - the new rock and roll


The reaction from the Nasa control room as the robot landed

"I hope to do something as great in my life in the future, but if I don't - this will have been enough."

Adam Steltzner has had a little time to reflect on the historic touchdown of the Curiosity rover on Mars, although he confesses the adrenaline of the past few days means he hasn't himself yet landed back on Earth.

The man who led the Nasa team that devised the "crazy" system to get Curiosity on the ground is still buzzing.

"It is a triumph. It is a triumph of ingenuity and engineering, and it's something the team should be very, very proud of," he says.

For a few days, Steltzner became the face of this mission.

His engaging personality and presentation, allied to his rock and roll looks, meant he was a natural magnet to the news cameras.

In those remarkable pictures from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room, he was the one pacing around and pointing.

Steltzner Steltzner and the Curiosity landing system now go their separate ways

And all eyes were on him - the master of ceremonies.

The worst part, he says, was waiting for the rover in its descent capsule to touch the top of the atmosphere.

About nine minutes out, the capsule detached from the spacecraft that had shepherded it from Earth.

There was then a hiatus before the real action began. "Those nine minutes were horrid."

If you haven't watched the moment of touchdown, you can see it in the video at the top of this page.

"I wanted three confirmations that we were safe on the ground," Steltzner told me.

"I had three different people looking at three different pieces of data. The first thing you heard was 'Tango Delta Nominal', which was touchdown nominal coded up so the world would not erupt into applause.

"Then Dave Way said 'RIMU stable', which meant the inertial measurement unit on the rover indicated that it was not moving - so, that told us we weren't dragging the rover with the skycrane.

"And then I looked over at Brian Schratz who was sitting in the EDL comm. His orders were to count to 10 and then tell me if he was still getting persistent clean UHF signal, which meant the descent stage wouldn't have fallen back on the rover. He said 'UHF persistent'.

"I pointed at Al Chen who called out 'touchdown confirmed'. The room erupted and the world learned we'd just made it to the surface of Mars."

Artist's impression of landing Steltzner wanted to be sure the skycrane descent stage had not crashed on top of the rover

Where do you go after you've done something like that? Steltzner is unsure. He's out of a job now. He has to write up a report on the landing and hand it to Nasa's top brass, but then he's got to find another project.

"Will engineer for food", is how he advertises his skills.

The frustrating part about all this is that the extraordinary landing system devised by Steltzner's team appears to be a one shot affair.

Adam Steltzner: It should inspire everyone

The skycrane was supposed to be used again in 2018 to put a pair of rovers on Mars, but then this joint European and US plan was scrapped. Technical drawings can get filed away somewhere, but the expertise that makes them real is all too often allowed to just drift apart.

Instead of building on success, space agencies have an infuriating habit of going back to zero and starting all over again.

I know this is an oversimplification, but it seems that everything must be bespoke. We design something once and then we design something different. This appears to be the way with planetary exploration at any rate.

Contrast the approach with communications satellites which come off a production line. Their unit costs are substantially less as a consequence.

Given the opportunity, Adam Steltzner is in no doubt where he'd like to land next: "We should be going to Europa, the moon of Jupiter that is the most likely place in the Solar System to have existent life."

Matt Wallace (L), Adam Steltzner (R)
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

Beagle2: Small margins between success and failure

It is some consolation to know that Beagle2 made it to the surface of Mars, but also deeply frustrating to realise that success was denied by such small margins.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Norsk: pity more Americans do not wake up to the cold facts?

    As USA lost millions+millions of jobs
    as Americans lost their health care
    American corps profits became the highest ever in history
    whilst American economy has became the worst ever in history

    You could say USA today
    is what a corporate run govt looks like

    Our govt doesn't want to fund NASA b/c corps want to take over space

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Good for NASA, a wonderful job

    But just a shame Britain isn’t investing in the future. We have just spent £12 billion on Olympics, ok people have enjoyed it but it ain’t going to change the world.

    £12 billion on space exploration can and would change our futures

    Just too many luddites and doom sayers, not just on here but running the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I can't really blame Europeans for turning to Russia
    USA ourself now relies on Russia to get to space

    My hope is that if we can get Mitt Romney elected
    it will turn everything around

    If we pick Obama corps will take over space exploration
    as he doesn't support NASA

    What America needs right now is another JFK

    America's future space exploration depends on this upcoming election

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    #Drunken Hobo
    Appropriate name? what a load of rambling nonsense

    #21 LucyJ is spot on! pity more Americans do not wake up to the cold facts?before it`s all to late!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    @15 bengate

    very true
    we will need the resources obtainable in space.

    Metals, energy and chemicals are plentiful around the solar system and can last us for millions of years with even the highest levels of growth in consumption and population. And they are just waiting for us to go get them.

    But knowledge itself is also wonderful

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Utter Rubbish,more backs of cerial packet stuff (quite appropriate) if you take the yearly spend on NASA & Joint projects+ other non essential will find it is far higher than you imagine!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    What really took down USA's economy
    was the outsourcing that started in 2000
    which resulted in loss of millions of USA jobs, health care, etc

    I don't know if even NASA realizes that's the main reason why USA can't afford space shuttles anymore

    USA corps employing Chinese has led to the rise of China's middle class+China being able to pay for space shuttles

    America's loss is China's gain

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    So many are disgustingly ignorant about the benefits of space exploration, and the immateriality of its impact on the US budget.

    We spend more on paying farmers to NOT grow corn than we do on space exploration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    NASA is such a phenomenal space agency
    yet it never really gets credit

    Even when the Mars rover landed
    they barely talked about it on news

    But just b/c our media doesn't care
    doesn't mean we are the same

    Americans like myself take so much pride in NASA+
    I hope that NASA knows we love them very much+
    are rooting them on

    Congrats NASA on your gold medal Mars rover landing!!! ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I object to sending a $2.6 billion rover to test sand and rocks for microbial life. It’s ludicrous. But imagine the irony of discovering life on Mars then contaminating it with the capsule debris that now litters the surface: heat shield, parachute, rocket crane, unspent rocket fuel, and other chemicals and toxins that will leech into the environment from the debris over time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    #15.bengate"As for the Luddites who say the cost is too high; we need the resources of space to maintain our affluent lifestyles. It'svital. Don't misunderstand that."

    Stupidest statement ever! where do you get this from,back of a serial packet.please wake up& come down to certainly must be living on another planet,if you think we rely on space as highly as you seem to think?brainwashed

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    My God,their are some arrogant comments below...
    wake up your nurds & smell the roses.afraid you over play your hands on the benefits of all this space exploration! we need to sort out this panet &QUICK! before it`s to late.don`t wet yourselves over mars landings! really wet yourselves over the next potential & most seriouse war,with Iran/Syria/Hesbolah/Hamas I suppose we could all move to Mars ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The point about bespoke designs that are more costly is well made. Space should not be as expensive as it is. With luck, the incoming Virgin/ SpaceX/ etc systems will be cheaper, because commercial systems have to be.

    As for the Luddites who say the cost is too high; we need the resources of space to maintain our affluent lifestyles. It's vital. Don't misunderstand that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Sorry,but no matter how fantastic this all seems and their is no denying it`s clever stuff.I am afraid I have to be a damp squid,when it comes to spending vast amounts on national ego trips! the US in common with much of the western world are in a dramatic decline,China like it or not and I don`t like it! are the new kids on the block & the US & others should keep there eyes on the ball down here

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @4 john1847

    For some of us science has always been rock and roll, but rock and roll has been a bit of a let down !

    This is wonderful stuff, real science and an uplifting adventure into another world.
    The stuff of what real dreams are made.

    Unfortunately to get funding the scientists will have to show space exploration can give us better TV and mobile phones, go figure

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Apologies for the repitition, didn't think my first comment had uploaded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Rock and Roll?
    Yeah man... Mid life crisis... Rock and Roll space cowboys!

    Please get a life. It's nurds doing nurd stuff. Hardly Wing Surfing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    What a brilliant achievement. Exploration is the catalyst for much of mankind's progress in often totally unexpected and seemingly unconnected areas. However, there are many people too stupid to realise this. They'll be here soon saying: space travel is a waste of money; the money should be spent on earth, overpopulation is the real problem; some nonsense about God etc etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    A great accomplishment!

    BTW, don't mind Bluesberry's ramblings...he's like Eeyore; always looking for the turd in the Cheerios.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The achievement of sending a probe so far, carrying out a complex approach, and landing almost on the bulls-eye is incredible. Unfortunately, there are many ignorant people with no understanding of the importance of exploration to spurring human progress. They'll be here soon, saying the money is better spent on earth or that over-populaion is the real problem...yawn, yawn.


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