“Six Minutes of Terror”
All the long hours, hard work, and tight deadlines culminated in that main event the landing of the first rover, Spirit.
“There was a lot of excitement, but tension,” says Chris Voorhees, who has watched other missions go up in smoke. “We didn’t want to have to watch it tank. There’s always a possibility you’ll put in all that effort and, in the end, never hear from it again.”
As Spirit approached the martian atmosphere, many of the engineers gathered to watch NASA’s coverage of the landing. Only a few were in Mission Control itself including Serricchio, who was guiding the spacecraft, and Voorhees, who was preparing for the drive around the martian surface.
Johnston was nearby in the Radio Science Group room. He and four other engineers were receiving the signals sent by the spacecraft in real time and then analyzing them to determine Spirit’s health and position.
“It was very, very tense as we watched the data on our computers,” recalls Johnston.
After entering the martian atmosphere, the rover had to endure what’s known as the “six minutes of terror” a short window in which a number of crucial, and perilous, events had to happen.
First, the spacecraft entered the atmosphere at an estimated 12,000 miles per hour, and its heat shield reached a temperature of 1600 degrees Celsius. A parachute opened, the heat shield was dropped, and the lander popped out and hung from a rope under the parachute. Just five seconds before hitting the surface, the airbags inflated and rockets fired to slow down the spacecraft. Then the rope was severed and the rover tumbled to the surface, bouncing several times on the airbags when it landed.
In Mission Control, and at an auditorium set up at California Institute of Technology for JPL employees and their families, the rover teams waited for news as Johnston and his group received signals from Spirit. They could see that the rover had entered the martian atmosphere and soon after, it had bounced on the surface. The rover survived the six minutes of terror. Then, nothing. The rover stayed silent for 10 minutes.
“The room was quiet. It was the worst 10 minutes of silence ever,” recalls Serricchio, who was at Mission Control.
“We didn’t have any indicators the craft was OK,” says Johnston. “Then the signal came back, a strong signal, and I called my immediate supervisor on a special phone line in Mission Control. She shouted it out in the room, and that’s when the room erupted.”
Nearby, in the Caltech auditorium, Beatty stood among hundreds of people quietly watching a large screen, waiting for news of the spacecraft.
“The first thing we saw on the screen was this commotion in Mission Control. But there was no audio. We were like, ‘What’s going on! Something’s going on! Tell us!’ And that’s when you hear, ‘We’ve got a signal’ and we knew the rover had survived,” says Beatty.
“It was a rush of emotions,” says Boykins, who saw the first pictures with other members of the Assembly Test and Launch Operations team. “It was like, ‘oh my God, there’s the surface of Mars. We’re there!’ It was surreal.”
Meanwhile Suchman had ducked out of a wedding reception to get an update from Serricchio in Mission Control. They were on the phone when the first pictures appeared on the screen.
“Fred was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we just got this picture’ and ‘Oh man, look at this one.’ He was incredulous, and I was frantically screaming, ‘Which camera?’ because if it was one of mine, I’d know it was working,” recalls Suchman, who designed the mast that held the rover’s panoramic cameras. “Four or five photos later, he said they were getting a panorama back and I knew the mast must be deployed. It was a total relief.”
All the engineers were keeping a close eye on their contributions. And they breathed a little easier when they knew their part worked. But for Voorhees, the work was just beginning. He was responsible for getting the rover off the lander and moving around.
“It was almost like, there are the pictures great. Now let’s get to work,” says Voorhees. “Those first few days didn’t seem real. We had simulated this and it looked just like our tests, but instead of walls, we saw Mars in the background.”
One of the first things Voorhees had to deal with was the airbags, which had failed to retract after landing.
“We were all excited looking at the pictures and then realized, ‘hmmm, that’s not what we expected them to do,’” recalls Voorhees with a laugh. “We ended up driving a different way off the lander.”
Return on Investment
It wasn’t long before NASA scientists began to announce discoveries. First, the rovers took photos of penny-sized pockmarks where crystals may have formed. Scientists also spotted layers of bedrock that looked as if they’d been deposited at the bottom of a lake. Then, on March 23, NASA announced that Opportunity was “parked on what was once the shoreline of a salty sea on Mars,” an area that could have supported life.
For Serricchio, those discoveries made all of the long days and hard work worthwhile.
Some of Rensselaer’s Mars team: (l-r) Chris Voorhees ’96, Doug Johnston ’02, Fred Serricchio ’94, Dave Johnson ’01, Heather Parsons ’96, John Beatty ’97, Mike Gradziel ’03, Andy Stone ’94, and Jason Suchman ’94. The group is pictured with the MER rover testbed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Photo by Bob Paz
“The science return on this has been gigantic. They’re finding things that are blowing the scientists away,” says Serricchio, who sits in on regular briefings with the NASA science team. “It’s really motivating to have them describe what they’re seeing in the pictures. It’s the reason why we’re doing this.”
Serricchio recently returned to the Rensselaer campus, along with Suchman, Voorhees and Boykins, to share their experience with a standing-room-only audience of students, faculty, staff, and children at Heffner Alumni House. They brought with them a film of Spirit’s journey and landing on Mars, as well as models of the vehicle and its parts. All of them credit their Rensselaer education with helping them succeed at NASA.
“The education I got at RPI seems different from other institutions,” says Voorhees. “It was the epitome of engineering education applying knowledge to real-world applications. That shone through when I arrived at JPL.”
Heather Parsons ’96, who worked on the rovers’ electronics, was one of several alumni who were grateful for Rensselaer’s team-building classes such as Introduction to Engineering Design.
“Learning how to work with other people and being able to get the whole job done was invaluable,” says Parsons. “I really drew on the leadership and management skills I learned there.”
Andy Stone found the rigor of the Rensselaer curriculum to be most valuable.
“I remember talking to an alumnus and complaining that RPI worked us so hard, and he said people understood that RPI students worked hard to get their degrees,” recalls Stone. “It certainly was a good preparation for this project.”
As the Mars mission wraps up, the Rensselaer graduates are moving on to other projects. D’Amario and Beatty are working on the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, which will go into orbit around Jupiter’s moons. Johnston has been assigned to the Cassini mission, which sent a spacecraft due to arrive in Saturn’s orbit in July. Meanwhile, Boykins and Parsons are spending their time figuring out the height of the oceans for an ocean surface topography mission.
More than one expressed relief that their schedules have returned to normal. But there’s also an acknowledgement that this mission was something special.
“It was such an exciting time. Stressful, but exciting,” says Suchman. “It really felt like this was our chance, and maybe our only chance, to work on something like this.”
For Boykins, it was just the latest chapter in the job of his dreams.
“This was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I come to work and I feel like I’m playing,” says Boykins. “It’s just awesome. I got to do what I love.”
Karen Kelly is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada.