Martian drama in Tucson

TUCSON, AZ--Last Saturday, a group of scientists and over one hundred members of the public jammed a classroom at the University of Arizona to witness the landing of NASA’s latest Mars expedition, the Mars Rover.

The landing was to happen at 9:35 p.m. Tucson time. In the hours preceding, several of the scientists involved explained the mission to the crowd. The last scientist to speak as the big moment approached was so nervous about the landing that she could barely talk.

The assembled scientists had an enormous personal stake in the Mars landing. If the mission went smoothly, funding for their research would likely continue. If it failed, much of their work would have been for naught and their jobs would be in flux.

Two-thirds of all past Mars missions have failed, including a European one which landed last week.

A live feed from mission headquarters showed on a screen above the podium. Tension built at 9:20 as the spacecraft prepared to hit the hazardous Martian atmosphere.

Cheers went up with every beep coming back from the space ship. First, a signal came that the craft let go of the heat shield. Then the parachutes opened. Finally, there was the beep indicating that the craft, surrounded by airbags which turned it into a giant beach ball, had hit the surface.

Then, nothing. On the video screen you could see the controllers at mission headquarters nervously munching on the good luck candy they had opened minutes before. The classroom in Tucson fell silent.

In a flat voice, a NASA commentator explained that the spacecraft needed to come to a rest before it could send back a signal that it was okay. It was expected to bounce for up to ten minutes, and roll up to a mile from where it touched down.

A bubble-gum chewing kid sitting next to me rocked back and forth with his head in his hands. “I can’t stand this!” he said, over and over.

The ten minutes crept by. Finally, in one corner of mission control visible on the video screen, a fist flew in the air and a whoop went out. A signal had come through. The whole place erupted in cheers and hugs. The flat-voiced commentator jumped up and down and pumped his fists.

Here in Tucson, television cameras from the local stations recorded ecstatic scientists hugging their spouses and each other. Even members of the public were teary-eyed with happiness.

I heard one relieved NASA scientist say that the landing had been “worse than having a baby.” She is slated to help analyze the data the Rover gathers on the soils of Mars.

Another man in the room had helped select the landing site. He was understandably relieved that the Rover didn’t crash onto a big rock.

In that classroom in Tucson, it became obvious that more was at stake than the fate of a single spacecraft. The reputations and careers of hundreds of scientists who have had a hand in the mission, from astronomers to mechanical engineers to geologists to mathematicians, were on the line as well.

NASA came under harsh fire last year after the crash of the shuttle Columbia. A failed Mars mission, the first major mission launched since last year’s accident, would likely mean more trouble in Congress for the space program.

The nervousness of the scientists may have been made worse by the knowledge that a past Mars mission crashed because somebody low down on the totem pole had neglected to translate a single calculation from English to metric measurements.

The safe Mars landing Saturday night meant that nobody out of the hundreds of scientists involved with the Rover, including many here in Tucson, would be saddled with such blame.

No wonder the scientists and their kin snarfed down the celebratory chocolate cake with such gusto.