In the same way Allyson Felix, Lashinda Demus and other top Santa Clarita athletes are making the London Olympics a “local” story, so do the rocket men and women of the Santa Clarita Valley make mankind’s latest mission to Mars a local story.
Some of Santa Clarita’s best and brightest are members of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team in Pasadena that successfully flew the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet, starting with the No. 2 man in charge of the whole project – Richard Cook of Canyon Country.
The Curiosity rover landing has made Cook an old hand at landing rovers on Mars, if there can be such a thing. In 1996-97 he was in charge of NASA’s first Mars rover, Pathfinder. He returned in the No. 2 position for the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed in 2004 and dramatically exceeded their three-month design life; eight years later, one still sends back data.
Cook isn’t the Santa Clarita Valley’s only contribution to the team. Santa Claritans populate all aspects of the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) program – from the design of the complex mathematical equations that guide the spacecraft to a speck of dust hundreds of millions of miles away, to the testing of a brand-new, crazy-looking landing system that placed Curiosity on the Martian surface Sunday night at 10:39 p.m. Pacific Time (Earth received time).
And now that the navigating and landing teams’ work is done, the mission gets handed off to the surface operations team – people like Jennifer Trosper of Canyon Country. In 2004 she drove the Spirit rover as it looked for (and found) evidence of water; now she’ll be driving the Curiosity rover as it looks for signs of life.
“It’s a 350-million-mile hole in one,” said Scott Evans, the mathematician from Saugus who led the team that designed the navigation software. “For this mission … we had to really land in a teacup on Mars. We had to land inside of a crater, close to – but not running into – Mount Sharp, and not running into the side of the crater.”
Why not find an easier place to land?
“This crater, Gale Crater, was considered by the scientists to be of extremely high scientific value,” Evans said Monday. “The entire history of Mars is written into those rocks and those sediments. So if we could pinpoint (the rover) and drop it right in there and not break it, the scientific bonanza is unrivaled. There is really no ceiling to what we’re going to be able to find there.”
“Not break it.” Words to live by. With so many successful landings to their credit, Cook and his team make it look easy – perhaps too easy. Of the thousands of operations that must be programmed in advance and work flawlessly, only one operation needs to fail for the spacecraft to crash into the planet or hurtle into space, never to be seen or heard from again. It happened a dozen years ago – on two JPL missions – and the memory is still fresh.
Much was learned – including the fact that the directive from Washington to undertake “smaller, cheaper” missions was misguided if it meant cutting corners.
In 2008, NASA made the decision to scrub its plans to launch Curiosity in 2009, at least in part because some new actuators the scientists and engineers wanted, to give Curiosity greater maneuverability than Spirit and Opportunity, weren’t testing out well enough.
In hindsight, the decision to delay was the right one. It’s a $2.5 billion project and nobody could afford for it to fail, least of all JPL. The delay gave JPL ample time to test and improve the rest of the systems.
Perhaps the most curious system – certainly the one that led to the most nail biting – was the landing system. Curiosity was simply too big to shroud in airbags, as was done with Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity would use a revolutionary landing system, created and tested by JPL, with a rocket-powered descent stage that lowered the rover to the surface via a first-ever “sky crane.”
The job of testing it fell to Eugene Bonfiglio of Canyon Country and his cohorts on the entry, descent and landing (EDL) team.
In a sense, Bonfiglio’s job was to see if he could create conditions under which the landing system would break.
His work, and that of the entire EDL team, paid off.
“It was about as picture-perfect a landing as you could have imagined,” Bonfiglio said Monday. “In all the tests that I ran in the test bed – I’ve landed this spacecraft 20, 40, 50 times, and that was more perfect than any landing I ever did in the test bed. It was tremendous.”
It proved once again, said Evans, that “we can do this, and still JPL is the only place in the whole wide world that has managed to actually land anything on Mars.”
“The United States continues to be at the head of the space race, especially when it comes to planets in the solar system,” Evans said.
And when Trosper starts entering the commands to send the rover out over the Martian landscape, it’ll be leaving some special “footprints” in the Martian dust. The holes cut into each of Curiosity’s six wheels – to vent the soil so the rover doesn’t get stuck in the sand like Spirit did – are arranged in such a way that they spell out “JPL” in Morse code.
JPL. JPL. JPL. JPL. Hello Mars. It’s us again.