Spacenerds crowded the car-free isles of Times Square at 1 a.m. to stare up at a screen beneath the New Years’ Eve Ball. Though the Toshiba-emblazoned screen was perched wayyyy higher than any life-changing footage had a right to be, the NASA lovers dutifully arced their heads heavenward for the breaking news: whether the rover had survived the Seven Minutes of Terror or if the complex skycrane maneuver failed before NASA controllers could correct the entry given the 15-minute signal delay between Mars and Earth.
Instead of blasting speaker updates at that ungodly hour, NASA made an app for users worldwide to tune into the countdown, until, at 1:32 a.m., the rover sent back its first picture: a shadow of its own shadow. You can only go up from here, Curiosity.
I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) August 6, 2012
That Gale Crater was specifically chosen from the litany of rewarding landing zones for its centerpiece: Mt. Sharp, a spire taller than any mountain in the Lower 48, whose wind-eroded surface showed evidence of water’s presence long ago on bottom and water’s current absence near its peak. The vertical chronology will tell much of Mars’ unknown story. But what if the landing had failed?
“We would have learned from our failure–we realized from the start that it was a risky mission,” said Public Outreach Officer Janelle Turner of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. As soon as the swaths of NASAnerds cheered at Curiosity’s successful landfall, Turner yanked open her NASA-emblazoned drawstring backpack to hand out pins, stickers, and wristbands stamped with URLs to track the mission’s progress (GetCurious.com, ExploreMars.org).
Turner waited anxiously alongside the hundreds of tittering New Yorkers, hoping the rover fell on the lucky side of the 50/50 odds she’d been told it would have. Of the 39 NASA missions since the Phoenix mission, Turner recounted, 24 have been successful; the failures, both American and Russian (along with a lone Japanese attempt thrown in for good measure), are collected in Wired’s handy gallery. Long story short: the Cold War fueled a lot of those failures, and though even the 2004-10 Spirit Rover operated long after the fall of Communism, that one guy followed up the post-landing “USA! USA!” group chant with the never-gets-old “SUCK IT, SOVIETS.”
Good job, That Guy.