Early Saturday morning, I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to join will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and about 150 other bloggers and Twitter users from around the world, all invited by NASA to see something wonderful. We were there to witness an Atlas rocket roar into the sky carrying a robotic spacecraft bound for Mars.
The Mars Science Laboratory, now better known as the Curiosity rover, will build on the legacy of Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity with a powerful mobile laboratory that will explore the enigmatic Gale Crater. Curiosity is bigger than those intrepid robotic pioneers—plus it’s powered by nuclear isotopes and armed with a laser. It will help pave the way for future astronauts, but its core goal is nothing less than coaxing Mars into giving up its secrets about whether it ever could have been home to life.
Being there in person to wish Curiosity godspeed as she set sail for the Red Planet was a privilege I’ll never forget. Here’s a little about what I saw and learned.
Why not get right to the fireworks: the launch itself was a spectacle of flame and speed. We had known for a week that there would be a 24-hour delay to replace a faulty battery. But on the morning of the launch, thousands of mechanical systems and people came together to make liftoff happen at precisely the appointed time: 10:02 am EST.
We Tweetup participants stood in a field just on the other side of the water from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a few short miles from the launch pad, in a VIP viewing area. We had been taking pictures of ourselves in front of the iconic countdown clock, and anxiously watching the skies for changes in the weather. In the final minutes of the countdown, we listened to launch control over smart phones as mission managers proceeded through the final pre-planned holds and announced the results of one last weather check: we were go for launch. The last few seconds stopped my breath and made my hands shake a little as I readied my camera.
At 0 seconds the nose of the rocket emerged from behind the trees and the ship jumped into the air. It was shockingly fast, and so surprisingly bright that you could barely look at it. The sound wave arrived a few seconds later, not as loud as I had imagined, but crackling like the sound of a bonfire. The rocket ascended through layers of cloud, before emerging into a bright blue sky. In just seconds it was gone, leaving behind a tower of smoke that curved away east over the Atlantic Ocean and finally disappeared from view.
There was a lot of cheering and hugging, then another round a few minutes later when we got word that the spacecraft had successfully reached its parking orbit.
After everyone had finished shaking hands and re-telling the story of what we had just seen, we went back to the large tent NASA had set up to house the Tweetup and watched live video from mission control so we could see the rest of the departure. Real-time data feeds updated a computer animation of the upper-stage Centaur rocket, now in space, as it completed its final maneuvering and the last engine burn that actually pushed Curiosity out of Earth’s gravity and toward Mars. More cheers.
Then we saw something I hadn’t really thought about before, but that for me turned out to be the most moving part of the entire launch. A camera mounted at the top of the Centaur stage showed a live video feed of the spacecraft that is now carrying Curiosity on its trip to Mars. The whole ship began to slowly rotate in order to stabilize the spacecraft in flight. Then the spacecraft silently separated from the rocket and drifted away into the blackness of space. Its solar panels glinted in the sun like jewels. And then I realized I could make out, reflected in the shimmering panels, the sun setting over the curving blue horizon of the Earth. Curiosity was truly leaving forever now, carrying with her the hopes of so many people on that thin, fragile arc of green and blue.
I was surprised to realize my eyes were welling with tears.
So Many Smart and Passionate People in One Place: The Tweetup
You want to know the truth? As unforgettable as it was, the launch itself wasn’t even the best part of last week.
In recent years, NASA has hit upon an idea to help spread the word about space exploration: the Tweetup. They assemble a diverse group of dozens of bloggers, Twitter users, and space geeks in general from across the globe, give them a first-hand look at various missions and the people behind them, set up WiFi access, and let them go at it. (See the official NASA Tweetup site and this story in the LA Times.)
Likewise, there’s no way to capture everything that happened over the course of the event. You can, however, watch a replay of one of the Tweetup briefings, where several key mission scientists and engineers offered the inside story of what it’s like to explore another planet.
Here are a few other things I’m bringing back with me:
- We toured the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building, where titanic rocketships from the Apollo era all the way through the Shuttle years were stacked together prior to launch. There, we saw the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is being decommissioned and prepped for museum display. The historic ship looked like she had seen better days. It was a thrill, but also more than a little sad, a reminder of the end of an era. In fact, the relative lull in human spaceflight that the United States is going through right now was visible everywhere at Kennedy Space Center in empty workshops and offices.
That said, our very reason for being there belied the idea that the space program has ended: we saw the fiery evidence to the contrary! The launch was a reminder that right at this moment, there are active missions from the U.S. and other nations to Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, comets, Jupiter, Saturn, and even Pluto and beyond. If anything, we’re living in a golden age of space exploration. It’s just that most of the missions are crewed by robots instead of astronauts. (The human program may yet bounce back, too.)
- Another new and fantastic way to keep up with space exploration is to take advantage of the amazing Eyes on the Solar System site. Cruise the solar system from your desk or even your phone. See 3D views of every orbit, every planet, every spacecraft in real time or at any point in history.
- Several members of the Curiosity flight team mentioned that while this mission relies on a robot to be our eyes and hands on another planet, it’s also paving the way for eventual astronaut footprints in the red dust.
While everybody at the event was proud to call themselves science geeks and space nerds, the fact is that more and more people are realizing that science and engineering are the way to wealth for individuals and nations. But not nearly enough people. Black Eyed Peas founder will.i.am presented an impassioned call for more and better science and math training for all kids, and for incorporating the arts in science education.
You can watch a recording of his comments.
- Curiosity lifted off for Mars atop an Atlas rocket. Our tour bus driver was an Air Force vet who remembered from first-hand experience when the Atlas was a weapon of war. They were aimed at Russian cities. Our tour guide pointed out that now, thanks to their low cost and rock-steady reliability, the main engines in Curiosity’s Atlas were of Russian make. Instead of shooting them at each other, the Americans and the Russians are now using their rockets as tall ships to explore the worlds together.
See also: Cruising to Mars – How do you steer a spacecraft at 73,000 mph to a moving target millions of miles away?
Curious About Curiosity?
- Official Mars Curiosity site
- Official Curiosity Facebook page
- Twitter feed
- Curiosity press coverage
- About NASA-sponsored Tweetups
Pictures and Videos
Why Go to Mars?
- It’s good for jobs and business now and in the future. One small example: “The work of dozens of small businesses helped make this happen…“
- There are many other reasons; here are a few