BY JANET MANDELSTAM
IU geology professors David Bish and Juergen Schieber watched the launch from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011. They, along with all the scientists who had been working for years on the NASA Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, gazed skyward as an Atlas V rocket lifted off with the rover riding atop it. Then came the nearly year-long wait as Curiosity made its way to Mars.
The scientists gathered again at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, on August 6, 2012, for the anticipated landing. They knew that as soon as Curiosity entered the Mars atmosphere, it would lose contact with Earth for seven long minutes. That set the tense scene as Bish and Schieber waited with hundreds of other scientists.
“It was seven minutes of terror,” Bish recalls, echoing the phrase used by JPL. And then the words came out through the audio feed with scientific detachment from Mission Control: “Touchdown confirmed.”
“It was the most incredible moment,” says the ebullient Bish. “We blew the roof off the place. Within a minute we got a picture, and we’re hugging each other and jumping up and down.” Or, as the equally pleased but cooler Schieber puts it, “It’s what people do when they have too much pent up emotion.”