Unlocking the Red Planet

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On August 6, 2012, the rocket scientist Adam Steltzner celebrated with the rest of NASA’s Entry, Descent, and Landing team as the Mars rover Curiosity made touchdown on the Red Planet. Although the introduction of Curiosity to Mars atmosphere and surface was painstakingly engineered by thousands of people, the mission’s success was by no means guaranteed.

In “The Martian Chroniclers,” his New Yorker article detailing Curiosity’s creation and installation, Burkhard Bilger called that moment in August no less than “the most complex and technically daring landing sequence in the history of the space program.”

Bilger and Steltzner discussed the landing, and the feats of design and engineering that preceded it, at a recent installment of “The Big Story.” Sponsored by Lincoln Motor Company, “The Big Story” brings together newsmakers and thought leaders to reimagine current events in a live series programmed by The New Yorker.

The rover’s landing was so fraught with risks that it was assigned a name of its own: while the rover itself would be known as Curiosity, the landing sequence was nicknamed Audacity.

“If you really want to have an all-access pass to the surface of Mars, you have to unlock the question of landing on a slope,” Steltzner explained. With its groundbreaking sky-crane technology, Curiosity was able to land anywhere on the planet where its wheels could handle the terrain. “If we could drive on it, we could land on it,” he said.

The persistence is paying off: after its arrival on Mars, Curiosity made its way to a region nicknamed Yellowknife Bay, where it found traces of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. In the search for life on Mars, “Curiosity’s findings are telling us to keep going,” Steltzner said. “Mars has not told us ‘no’ yet.”

Watch the full discussion here.

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