Peter Ilott, center, and his colleagues celebrate a successful landing… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
The mood was exuberant at Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sunday night after scientists and engineers watched their one-ton rover execute a complex series of maneuvers and land as gracefully as an Olympic gymnast.
"So that rocked. Seriously! Woo!" said Richard Cook, deputy project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory, as the punched upward with both fists, a sign of victory.
Cook reminisced about how far they had come since the 1997 Pathfinder mission, which sent the first rover, Sojourner, to skitter around the Martian surface. Sojourner was a relatively simple, skateboard-sized affair, whereas the latest rover — known as Curiosity — is a laser-zapping, video-shooting chemical laboratory on wheels.
PHOTOS: JPL's faces of joy
"Pathfinder was great, but we were young and stupid, frankly," Cook said, to much laughter.
The elation was mixed with relief.
“I’m so glad we nailed that sucker!” mission systems engineer Randii Wessen said.
Many of the scientists and engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory headquarters turned to humor as a release for the day’s tension.
Photos: History of Mars exploration
"I've never been so happy to be out of a job in my life," said Chris Scolese, director of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Scolese had been tasked with analyzing a mission failure — a moot point after Curiosity touched down on the Martian surface without a hitch.
Even those moments of quiet didn’t stay so for long. When Adam Steltzner, lead for the entry-descent-landing phase of the mission, got misty-eyed during a briefing, the room grew hushed as the engineer composed himself.
As Steltzner tried to speak, a muffled “Woooo” from a neighboring room broke the solemn silence. Steltzner – and his audience – burst out laughing.
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