Dare mighty things and other lessons from the Curiosity mission

Watch video of the lecture


“This rover is a biologist, a chemist, a geologist and an explorer on wheels, all at once.”

Dr. David Oh, Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was the guest speaker at Thursday’s college lecture. He shared an overview of the Mars rover mission, Curiosity, as well as the latest findings from Mars’s surface. The stories he shared inspired students to embrace the spirit of exploration and dare to do mighty things.

The SUV-sized Curiosity rover landed on Mars’s surface last August. Curiosity is NASA’s most high-tech rover yet, equipped with multiple cameras, an HD video camera, drills and a rock-vaporizing laser.

“So many different elements went into it,” said Garrett Gray, a mechanical engineering student from Dr. Oh’s home ward. “They needed aeronautical experts, geologists, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers… I think it would be a really fun profession.”

The Curiosity mission was launched to determine if Mars could have supported life in the past, or whether it could in the present.

“On earth, where there’s water, there’s life,” Dr. Oh said. “Well, we know there was once water on Mars, so there are two questions we ask ourselves: first, where did the water go? Second, was there life on Mars?”

Though Curiosity took years to develop, the success or failure of the mission was essentially determined in a seven minute time window: the entry, descent and landing of the rover.

“They call it the seven minutes of terror, and you’ll see why.”

Dr. Oh played a video clip of Curiosity’s landing sequence. The process involved a heat shield that could protect the rover from the 1600 degrees it experienced while entering the atmosphere. Next, a 53 ft. parachute was deployed, which slowed the spacecraft down to 200 mph. The next phase involved using rocket propulsion. Four high-powered rockets flew the rover in a serpentine pattern to slow it down further and steer it to a predetermined landing location. However, the rockets could not be used close to the ground, as it would kick up too much sand and dust. This necessitated the final step: the Sky Crane. The rover was gently lowered via cables to Mars’s surface, where it touched down on its wheels, ready to go.

Curiosity has been collecting data and pictures for six months now. It is slowly making its way toward Mt. Sharp (a mountain the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro), where it will make more geological observations. This week, JPL has been testing Curiosity’s drilling capabilities.

“What impressed me was how in-depth and intricate the design was,” said Quinton Taylor, a civil engineering student who attended the lecture. “If you think about it, Mars is 150 million miles away. The fact that they can control the rover from here… that’s amazing.”

Dr. Oh talked about the joy that Curiosity’s successful landing brought. He showed a video of the JPL scientists’ reactions as they anxiously watched the landing. When the rover landed safely, there was a mass celebration, the scientists jumping up and down, hugging each other, giving high fives, some even crying with happiness.

Dr. Oh likened this mission to the expeditions of Lewis and Clark as well as the Mormon pioneers.

“It’s the same spirit as those who settled the west,” he said. “We’re paving the way for those that come after us. The spirit of exploration is part of the American experience.”

Kevin Sonico, another civil engineering student in attendance, said, “It’s cool for us as engineers to see projects like that, and see what they went through before they achieved success.”

Dr. Oh quoted Theodore Roosevelt who said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who… live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

“It’s true,” said Sonico. “It really is better to try and fail than to not try at all.”

The Curiosity rover is collecting new data every day. Those interested in its findings can follow its progress on Twitter, Facebook and the JPL Web site.

Return to College News page.