Opinion | From Moon to Mars—a telling tale of two very different historic space landings
You don’t get to witness historic moments in space exploration, everyday
I remember the night when man landed on the Moon, some 50 years ago. At home we had a radio that was made—or rather assembled—by an electrician in a hole-in-the-wall shop in the neighbourhood. The tubes of the primitive device would heat up periodically and we would either have to switch it off for a while or, worse, carry the box back to the mechanic.
The 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing was broadcast live by Voice of America. There was a lot of crackling noise on our radio and I heard the bit—not clearly, though—when the module named Eagle, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the Moon. After that there was a gap of several hours before Armstrong was to climb out of the module and step on the Moon. As I waited, the tubes got overheated, the radio went dead, and I missed out the defining moment: the “small step/giant leap” line.
I was reminded of that night when I was watching NASA’s programme on mission to Mars a few weeks ago. I wanted to witness the last few minutes of the mission called “entry, descent and landing (EDL)”. This is the most crucial stage of the mission, appropriately called “seven minutes of terror”: the spacecraft reaches the Mars atmosphere about 128km above the surface, and the robotic lander InSight begins the landing sequence.
I was under the impression that the mission scientists would be guiding the separation and landing from their control room, but that’s not how it was. The one-way signal from Mars takes eight minutes to reach Earth; and relaying a command back to InSight would be another eight minutes. So the entire EDL process was programmed into the onboard computer and scientists didn’t know what was happening till after it happened. They could only keep their fingers crossed.
I had read about the complex procedure and wanted to watch the sequence. These are historic moments in space exploration, and you don’t get to witness them every day.
Some years ago, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory produced a video called 7 Minutes of Terror about the logistics of the Mars rover Curiosity’s final moments before touchdown. The five-minute video is a thriller and gives you a good idea of what to expect during the landing.
NASA also has a very comprehensive website where every aspect of the mission is explained in simple language, and through charts and videos. And then there’s this brilliant graphic on a website called The Oatmeal that I recommend because it can’t get simpler than that.
When the EDL phase began for InSight, there was total silence in the mission control room where scientists sat in rows facing their computer screens. You hear a voice: “Altitude 300 metres…200 metres…80 metres…60 metres…50 metres, constant velocity 37 metres…30 metres…20 metres…17 metres… standing by for touchdown…” There’s a longish pause, and then: “Touchdown confirmed! InSight is on the surface of Mars.” And the whole room burst into applause.
Could I have imagined this 50 years ago, when I was listening to the lunar landing radio broadcast? A spacecraft travelling for six months, across 300 million miles to a planet, landing a robot on its surface, and me watching it live on my laptop? Fifty years is a long time and I would have said this is science fiction.
We’ve come a long way since. When I watched those 7 minutes, the clockwork precision with which the robot separates, descends and lands successfully on the Martian surface, I was in awe of the brains behind the mission.
You might ask: What’s in it for me? How does it improve my life? The space agency’s research and technology has been applied to many commercial applications and the whole list is on a section of its website called “Spinoff.” There’s even an app called NASA Spinoff, which profiles “the best examples of technology that have been transferred from NASA research and missions into commercial products”. For instance, your cellphone camera is the result of their research, and the Space Mountain roller coaster in Disney World uses a computer programme developed by them.
Space is an unknown frontier; it fascinates us. There are private companies that are seriously looking at space tourism. I don’t know how soon that will happen. Maybe the next generation. But I’m certain the one after that will be able to travel to space for pleasure—if not to land on the Moon, at least for a view of the Earth from space. As Aldrin said, “I believe that space travel will one day become as common as airline travel is today.”
Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.