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(Composite Photo: NASA images; Photo illustration by Brian Smale)

The Brilliance Behind the Plan to Land Curiosity on Mars

Adam Steltzner’s ingenious ideas were crucial to the most spectacular space mission of our time

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In the days and hours leading up to the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, Adam Steltzner, a key figure behind that globally anticipated event, was often seen on TV explaining the physics of gently depositing a one-ton robot traveling at 13,200 miles per hour onto the planet’s rock-strewn surface. Curiosity was a $2.5 billion mission involving hundreds of scientists and engineers, but Steltzner became its public face, and much was made of his swashbuckling personal style, from the pomaded hair to the big belt buckles and snazzy cowboy boots—the fashion sense of the rock star he once aspired to be and a far cry, from a central casting point of view, from what folks had come to think of as standard NASA engineer regalia.

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Then came the moment of truth. An intricate sequence of maneuvers conceived and choreographed by Steltzner’s team reduced the speed of the descending rover until it could be safely lowered to the ground via a hovering, rocket-powered contraption called a sky crane. Steltzner, like millions of other people across the planet, was glued to a monitor, watching nervously, though in his case what was at stake was the culmination of nine years of intense engineering work and not a little lobbying of NASA higher-ups to give his vision a shot.

“In the back of my mind I was waiting for something to go wrong,” Steltzner says. “I was rationally confident and emotionally terrified.”

He wasn’t alone. John Holdren, the White House’s science adviser, was reportedly so worried that he was almost physically ill. Mars is the Bermuda Triangle of space exploration. Only 15 of the 41 missions that human beings have sent to the Red Planet have been successful. In 1999, for instance, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter disintegrated in the atmosphere—a failure later attributed to an engineering mismatch between metric and English units of measurements.

Curiosity’s landing allowed for zero margin of error. And, because of the radio delay between Earth and Mars, the engineers were not able to control the spacecraft in real time. Instead, Curiosity would handle its descent autonomously—with each and every split-second maneuver dictated by more than 500,000 lines of computer code. NASA called the undertaking “seven minutes of terror.”

Steltzner recalls the white-knuckle experience to me one blazingly hot summer day at his home in Altadena, California, not far from his office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Today his youngest daughter, Olive, is sick, and with his wife away, Steltzner, 50, is working from home and sporting a more casual look—T-shirt, shorts and sandals—though the rockabilly hair is still in evidence.

The successful landing of Curiosity in August 2012—after months of media speculation over whether the “crazy” plan would work—provided a much-needed dose of public exuberance at a time when it seemed as if the space program’s best days were behind it. “It proves that even the longest odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination,” said President Barack Obama. Or, as Stephen Colbert declared, “We Mars’d it!” The rover is the largest, most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to another planet. With its 17 cameras, Curiosity has captured some of the most remarkably detailed images of Mars ever taken (including a selfie). And, equipped with a drill and a one million-watt laser, the rover is leaving no stone unturned (or unvaporized) as it studies the chemistry and geology of the planet. It has discovered an ancient streambed and chemical compounds—such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen—that are necessary for life. Puttering along at 0.9 mph, the mobile laboratory will reach its primary destination next spring and slowly climb the foothills of Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high peak rich in clay sediments that could hold long-sought answers about the history of the planet’s climate.

And these dazzling historic science-and-engineering feats were made possible by a guy who failed high-school geometry.

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Steltzner grew up in California’s Marin County, just north of San Francisco, a self-described child of privilege. “My parents didn’t work,” he says. “My father was the end of a line of decaying wealth inherited from the Schiller spice company.” Such a childhood has its benefits, but there is a dark side as well. “Inherited wealth,” says Steltzner, “means the past is always better than the future”—a psychologically bleak outlook for a child. He rebelled in the only sphere he could, stubbornly refusing to attend classes in high school, except for drama class and the associated theater program. During his senior year, he did just enough schoolwork to graduate, although he never bothered to pick up his high-school diploma.

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