I kept checking the clock because it felt like 10:30 was barreling down on us like a freight train. Spacecraft launches can often be delayed but this landing was mostly being coordinated by Isaac Newton. He tends to keep to the schedule. I kept imagining the sky crane with Curiosity tucked away inside, and wondered if the final approach was the beginning or the end. Either way, the clock was ticking down. We were outside spread across the JPL plaza casually chatting away with a few of the VIP guests and gawking upwards at the night sky. Our wranglers closed in and herded us up like a bunch of feral cats and shooed us back inside while Curiosity plunged towards Mars.
Back in the media center I found a seat near the front and settled in with my laptop. By now I had developed a system for uploading posts that seemed efficient enough and I was comfortable with it. I was getting quick at whipping the SD card out of my camera and sliding it into the built-in reader slot in my laptop. It had become a habit to first develop a few potential tweets in notepad, knowing about how many inches a remark could be on my screen and stay within 140 characters. I tried to think ahead, getting a post mostly worded so I could edit it slightly when the time came and then quickly copy and paste it into each of the three browser tabs I had open; Google Plus, Twitter, and Facebook. The G+ and Twitter accounts were my personal “opinions-are-my-own” type accounts but the Facebook posts were on my official WWU Planetarium page.
Seven Minutes of Twitter
The time for entry, descent, and landing approached and things started getting serious. People seemed giddy and nervous at the same time. It was like everyone was thinking “The stakes are high but this is what we came for so let’s do it.”
Here are my tweets in chronological order, having removed the repetitive hashtags; #NASAsocial #JPL #MSL #EDL
- Back to business. Stuff is going down in mission control.
- “Space camp rules, sports camp drools” ~ Wil Wheaton
- They are saying that Odyssey is in position to photograph MSL.
- Ladies and Gentleman, our EDL moment is almost here.
- Powering down cruise stage hardware.
- Receiving heartbeat tones from curiosity.
- Here we go, it’s 7 minutes of TERROR TIME!!!
- We might get some pics a few minutes after landing.
- Still getting heartbeat.
- looking good, time to enter and descend (1 min)
- Entry has begun.
- Feel that atmosphere baby!
- 11 to 12 g-force, we are getting DATA
- Heading to target
- All looking good, Mach 2
- deceleration, Parachute deployed
- ground radar contacts ground
- shield separation, powered flight achieved
- sky crane deployed!
- Pasadena, we have reached the surface.
- CHEER ERUPTION!!!!
- images coming down to earth
- I’m looking at a shot of mars from curiosity right now!!!
- O M G WIN
- Safe and Healthy on Mars
- More images coming down – we see the shadow of the rover.
- Excuse me, I have to go hug people.
- A bazillion people in blue shirts just came in and marched around the room high fiving everyone here a bazillion times.
- Yeah. That happened.
Seven Minutes Later
Other than the cheering upon each bit of good news, parachute open, powered flight, skycrane started, etc, there were three major spontaneous uncontrollable eruptions. The first was when flight director Allen Chen announced “Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars.” The room absolutely exploded. I think the room was designed to hold maybe 400 people but it felt like there were somewhat closer to a thousand. Maybe not that many but it sure sounded like it. All that nervous energy was suddenly converted to acoustical energy at the rate of some freakish power of x. Also I may have been responsible for demonstrating some improvisational dance moves involving questionable gyrations of my booty.
The second seismic quake happened when the big video screen showed Curiosity’s shadow contrasting with the sunlit Martian sand. That visually sealed the deal. A picture is worth a thousand words but the crowd supplied the words anyway, mostly yeehaws, owwoooos, and various derivative forms of w00t. At one point I’m pretty sure I sighed an audible “fuckin-a.”
The Blue Shirts from Earth
The most sustained cheer of all came when the doors suddenly burst open and a promenade of geeks in blue shirts marched in, creating a bow wake through the crowd. They were high-fiving everyone in their path, they plowed their way up to the front, across the front and down the other side to where the tweeps were expertly snapping photos, high-fiving, and eating peanuts, all with one hand while posting tweets with the other. The line of blue shirts had by then entirely circled the room and it continued to orbit, around and around amid the whooping and hand slapping and furious camera flashing. I don’t know how many times they actually made it around. It seemed unstoppable. I managed to high-five Bobak Ferdowsi, a.k.a. Mohawk Guy, each hand in quick succession, during the moment he was becoming famous.
Someone at the microphone up front began to try to control the noise, maybe Elachi, maybe Bolden, I was uploading photos of Bobak. The commander’s requests for quiet dragged on, becoming more insistent and then demanding. After about a full minute the microphone voice took on a militant tone ordering immediate compliance and the room finally went silent. Then the voice thanked some people and then pointed out something about the image of Curiosity’s shadow displayed up on the screen and that was it. The crowd was in pandemonium again.
Clara Ma, the young lady who named Curiosity, is my favorite example of how people, many people, people like us tweeps, become emotionally attached to a project like this. We are totally in love with the effort. It’s a level of consciousness, a connection to nature unlike we humans see from any other animal on Earth. My dog use to howl at the moon but humans went there, brought back rocks and said “Holy crap look at these rocks from the freaking moon!” When the tensions of the seven minutes of terror were over and it was clear that success was not in doubt, naturally we were all very emotional. But then I looked over at Clara and her exuberance was unequaled. So much so, that seeing her unbridled joy is what finally brought moisture to my own eyes. She was hugging friends and family members. I started hugging strangers.
Thank you Clara. Thank you NASA, and JPL, and my fellow NASA Social Tweep Alumni, and thank you Curiosity. It was an unforgettable, bucket-list sort of thing. Thank you.
Part 1: Mars Curiosity Landing (meeting NASA)
Part 2: Belly of the Beast (inside JPL)
Part 3: VIP Constellation (stars and mars)
Part 4: Safe on Mars (seven minutes of twitter)