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Mars landing boosts U.S. space program

12:23 PM, Aug 8, 2012   |    comments
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PASADENA, Calif. -- As NASA celebrates arguably one of the greatest engineering achievements in the history of robotic planetary exploration, the United States' car-size Curiosity rover now stands poised to start soon on its next great journey.

It will be a journey of exploration as integral to NASA's mission as the journey that got the rover to the Red Planet.

"At this point, as scientists, we haven't even really scratched the surface, and really, what's amazing about it, is the miracle of this engineering," NASA project scientist John Grotzinger said Monday after the rover settled onto the Martian surface.

Curiosity, which began its trip with a Thanksgiving weekend launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, now sits at the bottom of a 100-mile-wide crater just 6 miles from a mountain taller than Washington's Mount Rainier.

"When you see that wheel on the ground, you know you've landed on Mars," Grotzinger said. "You actually see a picture of the surface of the planet with a spacecraft on it."

It's a success NASA needed. The future of the space agency's Mars exploration program was on the line. And, to some degree, so was some of its own self-respect. When Curiosity launched, more than 13,000 NASA VIPs crowded viewing sites, and thousands filled beaches and Space Coast roads. It was a post-shuttle effort to show that space exploration still mattered - and inspired.

On Monday, Curiosity proved again that it did. The odds were against a successful landing. Historically, more than half of all Mars missions have failed.

So NASA pulled out all the superstitious stops.

Mission Control engineers munched Mars bars and snacked on traditional "good luck peanuts." The label on official Curiosity peanut jars said "Dare Mighty Things."

On Monday, NASA celebrated six wheels firmly planted on a windswept equatorial plain. The rover has a two-year mission aimed at determining whether Mars ever harbored the basic building blocks required for the formation of microbial life.

Mission manager Michael Watkins and surface operations engineers are checking out the rover's systems and its 10 scientific instruments, making certain they survived a dangerous dive through the Martian atmosphere. After the systems are checked, a few initial science operations are likely, then maybe a short drive to scoop some loose soil.

"There are many out in the community that say NASA has lost its way, that we don't know how to explore, that we've lost our moxie," said John Grunsfeld, a top NASA official.

"Think about what we've achieved. I think it's fair to say that NASA knows how to explore," he said. "We've been exploring, and we're on Mars."

Eight months after launch, after traveling 352 million miles, Curiosity survived a dive that took it from 13,200 mph to zero in seven minutes.

"That's like driving 65 mph on the freeway and coming to a complete stop in about 2.1 seconds," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said.

USA Today

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