NASA Engineer Recounts Curiosity’s Landing On Mars And Then Some

I’ve always been a fan of trade show keynotes and always try to make time in my schedule to attend one or more of them. If the trade show does its job, the keynote speaker will be interesting, informative and inspiring. Such was the case with the opening keynote speaker at Design West in San Jose this week.

The speaker was Luke Dubord, an Avionics Systems Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Luke’s account of the work he and the NASA team did to successfully land the Curiosity rover on the planet Mars came across like a sci-fi thriller. Although some of his story was familiar to me and would be to most followers of this extraordinary mission, the wealth of additional details he provided on the preparations prior to launch, the trip to Mars, the landing on Mars and the exploits of Curiosity since the landing were simply awesome.

He spoke about the fact that the rocket that would carry Curiosity to Mars could only launch within a two-week period that occurs once every two years. “There’s real deadline pressure there,” he said. “If you miss that, you have wait another two years. This isn’t an artificial deadline imposed by managers,” he said. “The planets told us that it will have to be at this particular time.”

He said the major challenge was the distance between Earth and Mars—even light takes 14 minutes to travel that far. So there is always an intrinsic delay in communications and control. This is why so many of the embedded systems needed to work autonomously, including during the famous landing.

Dubord spoke about the probability of success of this mission being about 50%. He joked: “I’m actually going to work on something for a number of years that has a 50% chance of working, and you get one chance. And you know exactly down to the second when that chance will be. You just better be ready.”

This mission, of course, was a team effort. Dubord said that as certain parts of the launch and landing succeeded, you could see the engineers who worked on those parts of the project  breathe a sigh of relief or high-five other engineers who also worked on that particular aspect of the project.

Dubord weaved so many insights and details like these into his presentation that he truly gave the audience an insider’s view of the challenges these engineers faced, how they felt about them, and how they were able to accomplish their overall task.

As you know, the Curiosity mission is not over yet. You can view some of the latest incredible high-definition color photos at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html. I don’t know if the folks who run DesignWest plan to post the video of Dubord’s keynote, but if they do, it is well worth watching.

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Joe Desposito has held the position of editor-in-chief of Electronic Design since July, 2007. He first joined the publication in 1998 as a technology editor covering test and measurement but quickly...
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