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

(Composite Photo: NASA images; Photo illustration by Brian Smale)
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“Tango delta nominal.”

“RIMU stable.”

“UHF good.”

On cue, Chen announced, “Touchdown confirmed,” as wild cheers broke out. The entire sequence had gone off with barely a hitch.

“Imagine running a race for nine years and you finally cross the finish line,” says Steltzner, who admits the aftermath has been a tough adjustment period for him. “How does my body stop running? I have been on an adrenaline drip for a decade. How do I live without the slow stress hormone release?” His solution: throw himself at the next steep learning curve. He has been assigned to a new mission, designing a vehicle capable not just of collecting samples on Mars, but packing those samples in hermetically sealed tubes and transporting them back to Earth. He’s also part of a possible mission to put a lander on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, which, with its methane oceans, icy surface and intense blasts of radiation, is even less hospitable than Mars. Both of those missions are in the earliest preliminary stages, however. “I think he’s still looking for his next great challenge,” says Lee.

Steltzner may be the public face of the Curiosity effort, but he is adamant that it was his entire team that pulled off the landing. “That is one of the beautiful things about engineering. It is a collaborative art,” he says. “We are only the product of what we do as a group.” He tried to prepare his team for the day when they would be disbanded. “I knew from my previous landing experiences that this beautiful community we had created was going to die that evening regardless of the outcome,” he says. "I told them to really love one another, to live in the moment and drink deep of the cup, because that guy you currently hate, hate the very sound of his voice–you are going to miss him."

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