Mars Landing – A Tribiute to the engineers by Ayhan Ozer

For centuries, this country has been a fertile ground for the untold engineering marvels. The latest one on the list is the exploration of Mars. On August 6, 2012 America successfully landed a Rover on Mars. This was a flawless, triumphant technological Tour-de-Force for the American engineers and scientists. We salute them.

This enterprise began on November 26, 2011, and ushers in a new era of space exploration. The objective was to determine if the Red Planet, Mars, has the necessary ingredients for life. This was a huge project with a price tag of $2.5 Billion. Other than a big budget, it required the talents, skills, creativity, innovation and the collective mental energy of an army of top engineers and scientists in this country. The 8-month voyage of the spacecraft went smoothly, and it entered the Mars atmosphere at the appointed time, the thrusters guiding it toward the Mars crater worked perfectly. The parachute to help the landing of the “Rover” deployed exactly as intended. 

The “Rover” is the key element in whole process. The engineers named it “The Curiosity”. It is in the size of an automobile, and will do all the site work. For landing purposes, the Rover was attached to an intermediary “Rocket Stage”. When this combination positioned itself for landing it was dropped away from the parachute. At this point the powered descent to the Mars surface began. To achieve a smooth final touchdown the engineers invented a new method which they called “Sky Crane” maneuver. In this method, the Rover was gently lowered to the surface from the hovering Rocket Stage at the end of 25-foot-long cables. As the landing operation unfolded, each step proceeded in perfect sequence, without a flaw. The Sky Crane Maneuver worked as designed, and the perfect touchdown was accomplished.

Over the first few weeks, Curiosity deployed its main antenna, raised a mast containing cameras, a rock-vaporizing laser, and other instruments, and took its first panoramic shots of its surroundings. It has already neared close to the main activity area. First two years, the Curiosity will examine the ground and scoop its first rock samples within the 96-mile crater it landed on. Also, it will look for carbon-based molecules and other evidence to determine if Mars harbors life. The Curiosity is far larger than earlier rovers, and is packed with the most sophisticated movable laboratory that the previous missions did not have. It carries instruments designed to look for past and present conditions relevant to the habitability of Mars. It is powered by electricity generated from the heat of a chunk of plutonium, which could continue operating for years, perhaps decades, until it finally wears out.

As the spacecraft carrying the Curiosity towards its destination the pull of Mars gravity took over, and accelerated the spacecraft to a mind boggling speed of more than 13,000 miles per hour, which concerned the NASA officials for a possible crash. In this venture, the NASA officials were cautiously optimistic; they said, “A failure, should it happen, is only a setback, not a disaster.” In that venture, there were times when they operated in the dark. Glitches with interplanetary communications, for instance, could leave them not knowing Curiosity’s fate for days; however, planning, testing and design had been so thorough that these odds were minimized and never happened.

Following the successful landing, the President’s Science Adviser proudly announced that, “If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of the U.S. leadership in space, now there is one-tone automobile- size piece of American ingenuity sitting on the surface of Mars”.

NASA Administration officials were quick to point to the success to counter the criticism that The Space Agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory. It was well, and functioning effectively to make the Americans proud.

However, the U.S. is not the only country that launched a spacecraft to Mars. The Soviets’ Mars 3 spacecraft landed in 1971, though it fell silent shortly thereafter.

This engineering marvel is a tribute to the engineering profession and the talented and innovative engineers of America. They tirelessly apply the scientific principles to the optimal conversion of natural resources into structures, machines, products, systems, and process for the benefit of the humankind. They take science, and use it to solve the problems as well as the challenges of life. As the Latin root of the word “ingeniare” implies the engineers design and create. So, they are “contrivers”. They have created our knowledge-based-society and shaped our high-tech world. In these days what engineers do is so infinite and various that the discipline is redefined constantly, it has new and ever changing descriptions.  However, these hard working, creative peoples are so busy, they never toot their own horn. They are deeply involved in getting the job done, turning out quality products, protecting our environment, safeguarding public health that they have little time to crow. They are too busy to bask in their glory.

In today’s global economy only those countries and companies that prepare for highly competitive enterprise and technological sophistication will flourish; and the engineers will be in the front lines carrying the torch in that race. We hope everyone will celebrate their accomplishment, and recognize their creativity, innovation and their scientific abilities. We owe these unsung heroes three rousing cheers for their enormous contribution to the humankind and also to our country.

Ayhan Ozer

23 September 2012