Footnotes from Mars Curiosity

It’s natural to look back at the passing of Neil Armstrong and conclude that they just don’t make The Right Stuff like they used to. Or maybe in an era of declining expectations, it’s an unusual feeling to get a sense of pride that the U.S. is still able to muster a major accomplishment.

Yet the shots of people standing at 1:30am on a Sunday night/Monday morning in Times Square appeared a throwback to a more innocent, hopeful time. About a month ago, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity (MSL Curiosity) made the most improbable of landings on Mars. An eerie freak of timing that America’s greatest space achievement since the landing on the moon coincided within a few weeks of the passing of the man who uttered those words as he took the footsteps from the lunar lander.

We were reminded of this during a keynote from Doug McCuistion, who heads NASA’s Mars Exploration program, at Siemens PLM’s analyst conference last week. It was a fascinating talk, where he gave us background on why we’ve kept going to Mars (40 times over the past 40 years) and rarely succeeded (only 16 missions have made it there).

What are we doing there? It’s the obsession with familiarity: Mars is the closest relative to Earth, from adjacency and similarity (it’s the only terrestrial planet in the neighborhood). And all the surveillance and experiments points to a truism: there but for fortune Mars lost its atmosphere and most of its water. The evidence of water is both black and white – white as in the patches of silica (beach sand) uncovered by the tire tracks of a recent rover, and dark discolorations of sedimentary rock at the foot of Mt. Sharp. The Phoenix rover that visited the Martian pole back in 2008 discovered ice sheets that are several kilometers thick.

McCustion explained that the series of missions to Mars have followed a logical progression; the Global Surveyor identified old river channels while the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter has been taking high resolution photos of the entire planet, both of which have been used to select landing spots with greater likelihood for evidence of organics and water.

The dramatic landing of MSL Curiosity was just the latest of a series of high risk maneuvers that the mission endured. As for those Seven Minutes of Terror, it was closer to 10 minutes according to McCustion, but who’s counting anyway? That’s where the relevance of speaking at a PLM conference came in; McCustion spoke of the importance of simulation to “buy down” risk to the extent possible (the team used plenty of Siemens modeling tools to optimize component design), because artifacts like the operation of the huge parachute through the Martian atmosphere (which is 10% as dense as Earth’s) could not be physically tested. Simulation helped the team optimize and in some cases completely change the designs or plans for the plutonium power module and guided instruments. As for the unusual descent, it was dismissed as out of hand until all the options were weighed.

While hardly the only game in town, the Mars Exploration Program has replaced manned spaceflight as the public face of NASA. And to its credit, NASA marketed this mission extremely well, having a comprehensive web strategy replete with Twitter and Facebook feeds, partnering arrangements with games providers like Angry Birds, and staging the spectacle of live viewing in Times Square. Just think, if the touchdown had occurred at a more civilized hour, imagine the size of the crowds. It was an all-too-rare moment of feeling of shared accomplishment – and it wasn’t America’s alone. Technology onboard Curiosity had an unmistakable international pedigree, including a neutron detector from Russia.

The good news is that beyond the images of a shuddered manned spaceflight program, that private ventures like SpaceX are starting to fill a void. But SpaceX et al would not be possible had NASA not ventured where no man has gone before (SpaceX didn’t build that, but capitalized on it).

The question is whether, in an era where the national debate is all about cutbacks, that we are willing to invest anew in science, math, and engineering education. The Curiosity landing did not have the same global impact as Apollo 11. But would it be too naïve to hope that those Seven Minutes of terror becomes the early 21st century’s Sputnik moment?