PASADENA, Calif. — NASA followed up its picture-perfect landing of a plutonium-powered rover Sunday night with a picture of the balletic Mars landing — as well as some well-earned self-congratulation about what the accomplishment says about NASA’s ingenuity.
“There are many out in the community who say NASA has lost its way, that we don’t know how to explore — we’ve lost our moxie," John M. Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, said at a post-landing news conference, where beaming members of the landing team, all clad in blue polo shirts, crammed in next to the reporters. “I want you to look around tonight, at those folks with the blue shirts and think about what we’ve achieved."
That achievement, in the early hours of Monday, was indeed dramatic: With the eyes of the world watching, the car-size craft called Curiosity was lowered at the end of 25-foot cables from a hovering rocket stage, successfully touching down on a gravelly Martian plain.
For the world of science, it was the second slam-dunk this summer — the first one being the announcement last month that the Higgs boson, a long-sought particle theorized by physicists, had likely been found. But while the focus of the high-energy physics world has shifted overseas to CERN, the European laboratory, the United States remains the center of the universe for space, ahead of Russia, Europe and China, and for NASA, it was a chance to parry accusations of being slow, bloated and rudderless.
“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space," John Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at the news conference, “well, there’s a 1-ton automobile-size piece of American ingenuity. And it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now."
Now that it has reached Mars, Curiosity ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. Far larger than earlier rovers, Curiosity is packed with the most sophisticated movable laboratory that has ever been sent to another planet. It is to spend at least two years examining rocks within the 96-mile crater it landed in, looking for carbon-based molecules and other evidence that early Mars had conditions friendly for life.
Only one other country, the Soviet Union, has successfully landed anything on Mars, and that spacecraft, Mars 3 in 1971, fell silent shortly after landing. So far, this rover appears to be healthy.
“What’s amazing about it is the miracle of this engineering," said John Grotzinger, the project scientist.
As the drama of the landing unfolded, each step proceeded without flaw. The capsule entered the atmosphere at the appointed time, with thrusters guiding it toward the crater. The parachute deployed. Then the rover and rocket stage dropped away from the parachute and began a powered descent toward the surface, and the sky crane maneuver worked as designed.
“Touchdown confirmed," Allen Chen, an engineer in the control room here, said at 10:32 p.m. Sunday. “We’re safe on Mars."
Two minutes later, the first image popped onto video screens — a grainy, 64-pixel-by-64-pixel black-and-white image that showed one of the rover’s wheels and the Martian horizon. A few minutes later, a clearer version appeared, then an image from the other side of the rover.
“That’s the shadow of the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars," Robert Manning, the chief engineer for the project, gushed.
More photos followed. One image showed the rover’s destination, a 3-mile-high mound at the center of the crater informally known as Mount Sharp.
NASA also released a series of photographs that the rover snapped as it descended, showing the heat shield falling away and later a plume of dust kicked up by the rocket engines.
Over the first week, Curiosity is to deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser and other instruments, and take its first panoramic shot of its surroundings. NASA will spend the first weeks checking out Curiosity before embarking on the first drive.