January 26, 2004

Cornell Chronicles Martians

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Outside, the snow comes down and the wind blows, chilling a few students heading home after a week of parties. The old, nondescript brick building is quiet: little light shines out and it appears as vacant — minus perhaps a grad student or two — as the rest of the sleeping campus. On one side, “Sciences Building” gives the only enigmatic clue to what goes on inside. The rest of the lettering has fallen off over time.

Inside the building, it is almost silent. Posters of Mars line the walls: some are from the 1997 Sojourner mission; others are printouts from Spirit. Many have 3D glasses tacked by them on the walls, a low-tech method for fully appreciating the bleeding-edge technology that has powered the missions.

The brisk, sure voice of a technician echoes from down the hall: “Current altitude is three hundred eighty-two miles, we are currently one thousand two hundred fifty miles from Meridiani Planum.” Down that hall, in Room 105, forty people — students, professors, sit attentively and watch as the live NASA feed relays the final hours of Opportunity’s descent.

Launched in June 2003, the rover, whose identical twin, Spirit, landed three weeks ago, has traveled over 280 million miles. The mission planning, design and testing began much earlier when the idea was first pitched to NASA by Prof. Steve Squyres in 1996 and later accepted in 1997.

Since then, the project has faced delays, budget problems, and intense outside scrutiny as many questioned NASA’s relevance and effectiveness following the Columbia space shuttle explosion, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts.

Tonight, however, the hardship pays dividends as the rapt audience listens to the mission’s steady progress — as cruise stage separation is signaled, smiles spark up around the room. A group of students sits up front, pointing out different steps on the NASA lander descent chart.

The fact that they passed up fraternity parties and late night movies to watch scientists across the country and hear the beeping signals sent back to earth doesn’t bother them. “I can party, watch movies, and do anything else any other night,” says Andrea Armstrong ’06. “But, this is only going to happen once.”

Two flights up and a few minutes later, in the musty library of the Spacecraft Imaging Facility, Louis Alley ’07, temporarily in charge of the facility, watches over the room and a smaller group following the rover’s progress in there. A father explains to his daughter how, two minutes to touchdown, the lander lets out its parachute to start slowing up.

Alley mentions that there is a third screening of the landing upstairs, in Room 423. Up here, passing past a Martian fact sheets, the room is silent as graduate students involved with the project await confirmation — a minute and a half before landing — that the heat shields separated flawlessly. Applause breaks out: another hurdle crossed.

In this room, too, are the families of the scientists in Pasadena. They watch their husbands and fathers on the other side of the coast, the sacrifices in time and energy over the past several years all coming to fruition. The rover signals radar ground acquisition and again, applause breaks out along with handshakes and hugs.

NASA loses contact with the rover, expectedly, and the smiles and clapping stop. For a few tense seconds — probably less than a minute — there is silence, except for the status updates from mission control.

The rover’s landing is confirmed, and it starts its lengthy bounce across the rocky terrain: all systems are functional and healthy. The clapping and cheers are more sure, less tense this time, and celebratory brownies make the rounds of the room. Opportunity has safely landed. On screen, Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger make an appearance and congratulate the team.

After the landing, people begin to filter slowly out of the Space Sciences building. A few people stay around, watching as check after check confirms the rover’s health. John Pierpont ’05 notes that the politicians didn’t make an appearance until after the safe landing. For himself, however, he is happy just to witness the moment. “I’m just happy to see history in action. Something very significant was happening here tonight,” he says.

Adam Kerin ’06, who came with him, agrees, saying, “It’s almost something that’s unique to Cornell, and while I’m here I want to be a part of it.”

In the hours following the landing, pictures stream back to earth. A Mars different than any seen before appears, as the lander looks out on the first rock outcrop ever seen on the planet. “We have scored a 300-million-mile interplanetary hole-in-one,” said Prof. Squyres, astronomy, at a press conference.

The banner landing and choice location have come at an important time for the rover team, as the Spirit rover’s mission has been put in jeopardy. The rover lost meaningful contact Wednesday, sending the team into a panic only days before the stressful Opportunity landing.

Spirit has since regained contact with earth and is again taking commands, although at a somewhat limited capacity that will possibly set the mission back weeks. Although the team is still uncertain as to what caused the problem, they have cited the problem as essentially corrupted flash memory.

Archived article by Michael Morisy