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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    The small-minded amongst us might like the following:
    Hate your fellow man?:
    Space-travel a waste of money? You'll like Ed Perry:,11510/
    Now off you all go and reinforce your bigotry elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The cost of the Curiosity Mission so far is about $2.5 billion, or about £1.6 billion. Expenses of the Premier League football teams in 2010-11 was about £2.66 billion. Now football is great fun, but do you think the results of the 2010-11 Premier League season will matter to humanity (other than ManU fans perhaps) as much as the results of the Curiosity mission?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    As for the landing site, a large, low-risk area was selected, as the specific landing point could not be controlled, even with the landing system used. Some terrain that looks easy to cross (like a dune field) can trap a low-power/weight vehicle. That 115 watts (if it all could be used for movement) is less than 1/6 HP, so this is a 0.00008 HP/lb vehicle. A Mini has ~1.3x mass & 800x power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @43 - The thermal reactor powering Curiosity provides about 115 watts of power per hour. Even when the rover is only moving, that's little power to move a 1980 lb vehicle, even under Mars' low gravity (low weight but the same mass). With the loads for telemetry for 'safe-travel' photos from the haz-cams, I'd guess it's only a few hours of travel every other day at 90m per hour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Looking at the new panoramic view from Curiosity it doesn't look as though the terrain will be an issue in getting to Mount Sharp. I was a little surprised to hear that it will take a year to reach its destination. It made me ask why they didn't try to set Curiosity down a little closer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Glad they made it, it sure was a nailbiter of a landing

    They must be chuffed to bits

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    @39 obsidian: there is no cover up the anomalies you describe were investigated more closely 10 years ago by Mars Global Surveyor see for example, no cover up, nothing that interesting either, as is the way it goes

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    We in the UK could afford Curiosity and missions like it - if only we and the world didn't have our priorities so messed up. I have been interested in manned Mars and planetary missions for several years and can tell you that if the money we are planning to spend on Chinese trains were spent on space science it would stay here in this country and would go on benefiting the UK economy for decades.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    How about sending a rover to explore the face on Mars? Or the transparent tubes? Or any of the other surface anomalies on the planet? There are some real ancient structures there that may not be natural. I might be more supportive of NASA if it were forthright about these anomalies; instead, the agency engages in cover up, denial and obfuscation--not genuine exploration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Come on Luddite's this howl of rage about a few measly billion. Lets talk about pointless. At $2.5 billion Curiosity has only cost about the same as the US military has been spending every single week for most of the last ten years. - On a completely pointless war that has done little more that create a world wide generation of Islamic terrorists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    God Norsk you really are a fool and a bore. The exploration of space and the technologies that are developed because of it are vital to everyone on this planet. Furthermore, amongst the many characteristics (both good and bad) that make up humanity, the desire to explore and enquire are key. Space exploration is one of the main ways we can do this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The systems are bespoke when they have to be (which, when you're doing one-off missions, is often). On the other hand this is the third Mars mission to use the rocker-bogie suspension system. Once again the operating system is the commercial VxWorks product and it's running (once again) on a PowerPC CPU. I'm sure there's other examples on this mission of technology being reused.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    2 Hours ago
    "I am afraid I have to be a damp squid"

    lol, the door is that way...

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Agent 00: private sector

    I like Elon Musk+I think hes doing a great job

    I am not against the private sector-
    I'm all for them developing space tourism, etc

    But they represent themselves
    not us

    NASA represents America-
    every single American in our country

    When I see NASA accomplish something I feel like its my accomplishment too

    NASA is about science
    NASA represents America

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    28.Agent 00Soul
    13 Minutes ago
    @25 Lucy

    "NASA is a government agency. That's socialism."

    I think not. Research with no immediate profit is traditionally the domain of philanthropy and government.
    The money spent on Curiosity's design and operation is part of NASA's operating budget. The money spent on building Curiosity and its launcher was passed on to the private sector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    It truly is a shame we withdrew from the European project
    cause' the truth is Europe+Russia could use our expertise

    NASA has the knowledge needed
    just not the money

    Europe+Russia has much knowledge+money
    but neither has been able yet to land on Mars

    America has landed on Mars 7 times

    I am sad we can't do the project w/ you guys
    cause' I think we would bring a lot to the table

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Wouldn't the world be such a fantastically depressing place if we spent all of our money, effort & time on issues like famine & war? Projects like this makes being human worthwhile and are a welcome distraction from the horrors of the world. Sure, this lander is unnecessary, but that's no argument against it; some of the best things in life are unnecessary!

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I work in the UK space industry and on satellites and stuff. Believe me it is not all that exciting. It takes about 10 years to get anything into space which is actually quite a long wait. The realities of life tend to overtake the glamour, like not getting pay rises and the lack of job security despite obvious skills. Space is private sector and they want PROFITS. No jobs for life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Compare NASA's budget to that of the us military who are in the business of ending thousands of innocent lives. The us needs to stop investing in death and destruction and put the money into furthering our understanding of the world around us. Saves lives and saves money. We would all still be in caves if we weren't an inquisitive, inventive species. Stop asking questions and we stop being human.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @25 Lucy

    NASA is a government agency. That's socialism. Why does the US government need to be involved with this, when it's been proven the private sector can do it better! Why do you support socialism? I don't want socialism in America


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