POSTED ON SUNDAY, AUG 5 AT 3:00 PM EDT.
By this time tomorrow the nation, indeed the entire world, will be thinking one of two things about NASA and our space program.
The better of the two is this: NASA is the greatest thing since sliced bread; a world class organization that, with its legendary “can do” attitude, has once again pulled off nothing less than an engineering miracle and proved our space program and the human spirit of exploration is alive and well.
The worse of the two is this: Once again NASA has failed to deliver on its promises, wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on a scheme that turned out to be as crazy as it looked, and reinforced the notion that our space program is dead and going nowhere fast following the end of the space shuttle program last year.
We’ll know very early Monday morning which of those two extremes will play out in the headlines this week when word reaches Earth from the planet Mars that a rover named Curiosity has either landed successfully or punched a new crater into the surface of the Red Planet.
The Mars Science Laboratory is expected to touch down on Mars at 1:31 a.m. EDT and then it will take about 14 minutes for the news, good or bad, to cross the distance between our two planets.
Excitement is growing and expectations are high. Folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and all over NASA have planned huge events to help the public watch events unfold, including in New York City’s Times Square, where the big jumbotron television will be tuned to NASA TV.
NASA has been calling Curiosity’s entry and descent to landing through the thin Martian atmosphere seven minutes of terror, and if you haven’t seen the NASA video by the same name or heard about how the landing will take place, then you may not appreciate how apt the phrase seven minutes of terror is.
Launched from here at Cape Canaveral in November of last year, the Mars Science Laboratory with its Curiosity rover was sent by an Atlas 5 rocket on what amounts to a collision course with Mars.
Initially as the probe enters the atmosphere tonight a heat shield will protect the spacecraft as it begins to slow down.
Then a supersonic parachute will deploy to continue the job and help orient the spacecraft in the right direction. But the air is so thin that a parachute isn’t enough to get the rover safely all the way to the ground.
So the next thing to happen will be that the spacecraft will fire a set of rocket engines to slow the descent even more and take the rover almost all the way to the ground, but not completely because if it did, the dust kicked up by the engines could damage the rover.
So this is where JPL will try something new, something even the engineers and scientists say looks a little crazy.
With the spacecraft hovering above the Martian surface like a helicopter, the Curiosity rover will be dropped from the spacecraft and lowered toward the ground at the end of a set of tethers — something JPL calls the sky crane maneuver.
As soon as all six of Curiosity’s wheels touch down, the tethers will be released, the mother ship will fly off to crash into the surface a safe distance away and the rover will phone home and let us know how it’s going.
And everything I just described will be done by Curiosity all by itself, automatically, with no help from Earth. All we can do is sit here and wait, offer support and prayers, and take some small measure of comfort in the fact that the United States has made seven attempts to land on Mars and six have been successful.
In fact, the U.S. is the only nation to have successfully landed robot probes on Mars, so you gotta feel good about our chances tonight.
Of course all of this so far, the launching, the cruise, entry, descent and landing is just the beginning of what we certainly hope will be a long and fruitful mission for Curiosity. As the project’s deputy scientist, Aswhin Vasavada, explained last week on Space Talk, the car-sized rover will look for signs that conditions might have been hospitable for life, but not necessarily for proof itself that life once existed on Mars, or even that small microbes of life are there now.
A successful landing on Mars overnight tonight would enable another step in the journey that ultimately, inevitably, will lead to humans stepping foot there one day – a mission, I might add, that would be launched from the Kennedy Space Center if plans continue as they are laid out now.
A successful landing on Mars overnight tonight might also sway the public to more vigorously support our space program, and convince our elected leaders in Washington, including President Obama, to restore the funding for NASA’s planetary sciences budget in 2013 that was cut in the president’s budget proposal to Congress for who knows what misguided, uninspired and generally goofy reasons.
To be fair, NASA’s planetary sciences budget for next year does include money for some very exciting missions to other bodies in our solar system, it’s just the Mars portion of the budget that was hit particularly hard in favor of these other missions and in continuing to fund the over budget, overdue James Webb Space Telescope.
Of course, I think NASA and our entire space program should be getting more money anyway. As I’ve said before, a great nation can afford to do all the great things we should be doing, if only we have the willingness to do so.
So, to say a lot is riding on what will happen tonight to a spacecraft about 154 million miles away is probably more than an understatement. So much has to go right, by itself, without any help from us Earthlings, that it seems impossible.
It may turn out that way. I hope that it doesn’t. We’ll know in less than 12 hours.