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 67.

    I said to my wife as we watched the NASA TV coverage that the EDL scheme was a very typical "American" solution. It was gutsy, maybe a bit crazy at first sight but it has a "can do" attitude and you know that if it hadn't worked NASA would have come up with something else and tried again. The only way to fail is not to try.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    @44 Wilem

    OK. That goes a long way to explaining the time frame and my other queries. Thanks for explaining it clearly for me. I did figure that safety was probably paramount in selecting the landing zone, but given how successful the landing was hindsight made me ask those questions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    No amount is too much in the quest of knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Another comment thread for the cavemen to come out and express their ill-informed opinions about how all this is a waste of money. Followed by the religious nuts going completely of subject and claiming that science can't disprove the existence of god. Makes me chuckle every lunch time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    We did not sent 2.5 billion $$s to Mars.

    This is 2.5 billion that was invested back into our society, engineering and science.

    2.5 billion well invested I beleave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    The two things that drive engineering, science and technology strongest are space exploration and war. War seems to be far more expensive both financially and in terms of human life. Technologies and research from space exploration feed back and are of a general benefit to society. Finally we have all our eggs in one basket. We need to colonise other planets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    58 redrobb - How many more citizens would be unemployed if they stopped funding NASA?
    Doesn't seem a bright idea to take money away from a government agency in order to give to the poor, whilst in the process creating a lot more unemployed people. Does that make economic sense to you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    58. Redrobb

    The cost of curiosity could be covered several times by the cost of the olympics. Or in another way is a the cost of US operations in Afghanistan for *one week*. Or less than the air conditioning bill alone. If you want to feed people stop fighting people.

    The (indirect) benefits to society that come out of this kind of engineering and research (medical etc) are worth the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Both Curiosity and Morpheus are part of a bigger picture.
    Rover is scoping out Mars to see if humans can sustain life there, & BUILD A BASE. Morpheus, meanwhile, would be the lander NASA is looking to use to get humans to the red planet, if they can get it to work.
    At least two decades before NASA hopes to get humans to Mars. I say thank God for that; all we need is an American base on Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Money no object......Just how many US citizens are unemployed. I'm sure it makes economical sense to someone.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    11.Ross Walker
    9th August 2012 - 18:41
    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.

    Ross, you old rock'n'roll hellraiser, your Mum wants to know if you want egg or corned beef in your sandwiches.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    $7M Morpheus burst into flames. Morpheus crashed. Apparently lander experienced a hardware component failure. Oh well, it might have been Curiosity with total cost of $2.5B.
    (May I just add a word about Professor Colin Pillinger & "failure" Beagle 2 mission to Mars in 2003: It was a fine effort for resouces you were given!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Adam Steltzner is a man id love to have a chat with, its about time we had a down to earth (no pun intented) as the face of Nasa

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    53. Robert Lucien

    You mean someone like Gordon Brown? Ha!
    Armchair economists, eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    #52 englishvote . . I quite agree

    If we could only have a chancellor who could count over ten without taking his shoes off we could afford some 20 to 40 Curiosity type missions evey year just from the money we would save. - Of course here it would probably end up going on tax cuts for the rich. :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The cost of the Curiosity mission is $2.5 billion over 8 years, so a budget of $310 million a year or half the cost of BBC2 !

    Britain could do 1 of these missions every four years and all it would cost us is BBC2

    Instead we invest nothing, and waste taxpayers billions on entertainment and art that could fund themselves

    Even if Britain’s space budget could just match our art budget

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    #49 dereke -was just going to say that..
    Could also add that the RTG's themselves generate 2 kilowatts (per second) of thermal power but the conversion efficiency to electricity is only about 5%. That might not sound very good but the rover needs ultra high reliability more than it needs power - so they use direct thermal conversion through peltier elements. 5% is state of the art.. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    @49 I meant to say 'or the energy in around 2400 kcal of food per day...'

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @44 - Just to correct your use of the term Watt, the reactor produces a Power of 115 Watts (not Watts per hour), which equates to 115 Joules (of Energy) per second, or 414000 (115 x 3600) Joules per hour.

    Which is not a lot of power, similar to that used by a typical adult human at rest, or the energy in around 2400 kcal of food...

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    What a crazy way to land a space craft - but what an achievement - to land a 1 ton rover on an alien planet remotely. Exploring this universe, be it in missions to other planets, or studying elemental particle physics, or the mating habits of fire ants is all money well spent - if only politicians had more science interests at heart think what things humanity could do!


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