Tech by VICE

How NASA Pulled off the Craziest Stunt on Mars, From the Guy Who Led the Team

Just a normal interplanetary jaunt involving supersonic parachutes and Sky Cranes.

by Becky Ferreira
Jan 31 2016, 3:00pm

Concept art of Curiosity EDL. Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech

When it comes to outrageous stunts, Evel Knievel has nothing on the Mars Curiosity rover. On August 6, 2012, this robotic daredevil hurtled into the Martian atmosphere at 13,200 miles per hour, deployed a supersonic parachute, ditched its heat shield and backshell, fired up its retrorockets, and proceeded to lower the rover down to Mars using a fantastically weird contraption called a Sky Crane.

This Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) phase has, at times, seemed insane even to its lead engineer, Adam Steltzner. But in his newly published book The Right Kind of Crazy, Steltzner emphasizes that there was a lot of method to the madness, right down to the final moments leading up to the EDL. What has become popularly known as Curiosity's "seven minutes of terror" was preceded by over a decade of hard work, tough calls, and meticulous preparation by Steltzner and his team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

"Seven Minutes of Terror," Curiosity's EDL. Video: NASA/YouTube

Indeed, The Right Kind of Crazy (which is co-written by William Patrick) is as much about the managerial challenges of leading these kinds of spaceflight missions as it is about overcoming technical hurdles.

We often hear the refrain "space is hard" when faced with failures (see: CRS-7), and tend to assume it simply means that it is difficult to shoot valuable objects to other planets by strapping them to massive explosive devices. Which it definitely is.

But it also takes effort to organize huge teams of specialists toward one goal, and to optimize their talents. It's hard to keep hulking organizations like NASA and its subsidiaries streamlined and accountable, or to assert leadership without inspiring discomfort in your team. All of that ultimately factors into how successful a mission will be.

I spoke to Steltzner over the phone about the process of coordinating the EDL team, sticking the landing, and recounting his experience in the memoir. Scroll down for more about high risk maneuvers and how Britney Spears stole the Mars Exploration Rovers' spotlight.

Why do you think Curiosity's landing struck such a special chord with the public?

Adam Steltzner: There's a couple of things I attribute that to. I worked a lot on [Mars rovers] Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004. Social media was not what it is today. There were really four or five major outlets for national television news dissemination, and national news would have five or six things they will say in a news cycle. The moment you become "thing seven" you disappear from the world.

Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

I can actually remember that we were on CNN's top five news stories until Britney Spears got out of a limousine not wearing all the things that one might imagine she should be wearing. All of a sudden, we were knocked out of the top five.

That's on you. You should have made sure Britney Spears was involved in the landing.

If only our communications folks had made that celebrity endorsement arrangement.

So, social media was a good boost for Curiosity?

Social media was a big part of it. The "Seven Minutes of Terror" Curiosity video went viral, so that helped turn the waters. This time, more folks were more comfortable letting the world in on the fact that this is not easy, it's not certain, it's not a walk in the park, we're committed to it, and we're working our asses off.

Will the Sky Crane concept be used in future missions, or was it a one-off?

I can tell you that we are going to use it for the next big trip to Mars, which will be a sample return mission. In fact, I am the chief engineer of that project. We're going to take the same landing system and a rover that is very similar to Curiosity, except that it has a different set of equipment.

What's the plan for returning samples from Mars?

We will take core samples of rocky material and then seal them in these hyper-sterile hermetically sealed vials. We are already involved in the landing site selection process. Our next landing site selection workshop is coming up, almost a year from now, and that's when we'll next dig into the what seem to be the right places.

The best site would be a smörgåsbord of deposits. We're in that process of looking for a site with diversity to answer a wide range of questions about Mars, that we can easily and safely access and operate a surface mission.

Prototype of potential sample return cache. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Your book outlines the "better, faster, cheaper" culture of JPL (and NASA more broadly) during the 1990s, which was pushed by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. How does that working environment compare to what JPL is doing now?

I think with Daniel Goldin and "better, faster, cheaper" we saw a major cultural shift at NASA that was really embraced at JPL. We have kind of, in some ways, always been a little "better, faster, cheaper." It sort of resonated with historical elements of our [JPL] culture. We'd been doing smaller, more frequent, and higher risk missions than has been the norm for NASA at large.

Since then, I think we have seen the pendulum swing back. A NASA administrator said of Pathfinder, "if it just makes it to the launchpad, it has been a success." Nobody would have said that about Curiosity. She had to successfully land, and she had to do great science—which she has done—for anyone to agree that she had been a success.

At the lab, we now have a very diverse portfolio. Going forward, we have a very diverse set of missions, which is great. I like it a lot.

What about the diversity of the people who work at JPL? How has the social environment changed since the 1990s?

We have sort of a slightly interesting bimodal distribution right now, where we've got a relatively young set of folks coming in. Hiring from that demographic, from 25 to 35, is even more challenging because we have some competition with other space entities, like SpaceX and even with other high tech areas not in space.

We have lost people to Google and Apple because unfortunately, Silicon Valley has figured out that JPL is an excellent incubator of good talent. There has been a recent wave of "oh let me come poach your people" from Apple and Google and the like. It's a challenge that we will have to face.

I believe in the free market so it's our job to make a value proposition as to why it's worth it to stay. The value proposition is not about salary. You're not working here because we're paying you the most bucks. You're working here because you are fired up about the work. You are fired up about the people. A good friend of mine and a mentor that I mention in the book, Gentry Lee, once said that's it not where you work or what you work on that makes a difference, but it's who you work with that has the greatest impact on your day to day life and how you grow.

I have used that as my value proposition when I have a slight threat from somebody who is considering going to another institution. Look at the people you are going to work with, think about how they will challenge you, think about how that will make you better, and compare that to the folks we have at the lab, and make your decision. And by far, I have been successful at retaining folks when I give them that task to evaluate potential other jobs.

You mention in the book that during the early years of the American space program, engineers had a much more "I am a robot" image to them. Now, there seems to be a much more open expression of individuality and personality at JPL.

They used to whitewash the personality out of the humans involved [in spaceflight], and I think really, that was a holdover from the Cold War. It's a military thing. You have a sea of camouflaged uniforms that are going to do the job, and the backstory of the individual soldiers is completely unimportant. In fact, it's important to hide it because they are meant to be invincible machines.

Similarly, in the Cold War, I think that extended down to the engineering staff. We were racing to the high ground, for what purpose we didn't know, but we didn't want the enemy to get there first. That afterglow stayed with us for many years and I think that it meant it was not very accessible to the general public.

Now it is much more open, which engages and inspires youth more effectively than it used to because we are recognized as coming in many shapes and sizes, and many different styles. That diversity which really does exist is shared, the struggle is shared, and I think it's really more a human endeavor. It's a gesture of our humanity.

Beyond the Mars sample return mission, what upcoming projects are you particularly excited about at JPL?

We have on our books an expedition to do close observations of Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter, that my exobiologist friends think is a great candidate for having existing life in our Solar System today.

We are looking into adding a lander to that flyby mission so that we can land a spacecraft on the surface of Europa, on top of its ice shell. We don't really know what the ice shell thickness is but we do have data that suggests that ice covers—and protects from Jupiter's radiation environment—a liquid water ocean more than twice the volume of all the oceans on Earth

Promo for NASA's Europa mission. Video: NASA/JPL-Caltech/YouTube

I want to be part of putting a lander on the surface of that ice. [...] We're gearing up. The Clipper team has been in place for a couple years, and we're starting to staff up a lander team to see if we can make a lander happen.