Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Launch Director Hails Curiosity Landing

Omar Baez completed his eighth trip to Mars on Monday when NASA's Curiosity rover touched down perfectly inside the Gale Crater to begin a two-year geologic survey of the mysterious red planet. As with everyone else on Earth, Baez can only go to Mars remotely, but that doesn't diminish his excitement.

Nine months ago, Baez was carefully going over the details of Curiosity ahead of its launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. As launch director for NASA's Launch Services Program, it was up to Baez to confirm that the one-ton robotic rover was ready to make a months-long voyage through space to a planet 14 million miles away.

On Nov. 26, 2011, Baez gave his "go" to start the mission, offering his confidence that everything he had seen showed that the rover was ready. Not to mention the rocket pack that would fly through the Martian atmosphere and lower Curiosity onto the surface in a landing maneuver that had never been tried before.

Although he checked out everything several times in a processing hangar on Earth and worked closely with the rover's builders and operators from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., he still had an anxious night watching the landing on TV.

"I think there's been roughly 7,000 people who have worked on this," Baez said Monday morning. "There's a personal sense of ownership and some skin that went into making this happen. So I am overjoyed. I was so ecstatic to see them succeed and see this thing on the surface."

Before the mission was launched, and knowing how difficult the entry and landing would be, Baez said he would call the flight a success if the rover landed and returned some video and photos of the barren Martian landscape. That goal has been met, but Baez said he is on to the next level of expectations from Curiosity.

"I think I'm still numb, I'm still waiting for more pictures," Baez said. "I want to see the thing roll around and rove. I'm not ready to pop the champagne corks yet." The landing buoyed the whole launch team. "Everyone's walking with a spring in their step, just having a good time," Baez said. "Overall, it's a great feeling."

Even after launching eight spacecraft to Mars, Baez' work with the red planet is not finished. The Launch Services Program is working toward the launch of the MAVEN mission, a spacecraft that will study Mars from orbit. MAVEN, short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatiles EvolutioN, is to look for clues as to why the Martian atmosphere changed and why its surface water was lost to space. It is to launch in late 2013.