By Mike Deliman
One year ago we achieved something incredible. We landed a one metric ton “gizmo” on the surface of another planet. We returned to Mars, this time with the most complex vehicle ever sent to another planet. Simply amazing. Historic. Absolutely incredible. Incredible. Watching the landing was one of the most memorable events I have ever seen.
We landed in a spot that our engines had scrubbed clean of dust. What was revealed was a conglomerate, a form of rock made up of other rocks and sand, compacted over time. This conglomerate showed us one of the main things we were looking for: was Mars ever more like earth? Our landing gave us something else: a target to visit that was in the wrong direction. Discussion ensued, agreement was reached, and that target was visited. This turned out to be a very valuable visit. It told us a story of water flowing on Mars, much like it flows in streams on the Earth.
A laser spectrometer is one of the science packages built into MSL. This device shoots a laser through a sample – for instance – of the atmosphere – then tells us what that sample is made of. In the case of the atmosphere it has been capable not only of telling us what it contains today, but also some very strong indications of how it became this way.
The answers we have gained through Curiosity’s visit to Mars are why NASA did this great thing: Mars was once not only a habitable planet, the conditions were actually favorable to life. That something catastrophic happened, causing Mars to lose its magnetic field, which allowed the solar wind to slowly strip away the lighter parts of the atmosphere, leaving it the way it is today. Mars was once very Earth-like.
The story Curiosity is telling us builds on the evidence sent back from all the previous Mars missions combined. It’s an amazing story of how a planet has evolved, a planet that was once earth like but currently is cold and unfriendly. It has also told us that in Gale Crater, conditions are acceptable for a future manned visit to Mars.
Nearly 20 years ago I remember my boss offering to let me work on a project. It was going to mean a lot of work, a lot of dedication. It was a project for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a project called Mars Pathfinder. My part was to support the efforts of our team and the teams at JPL and a place called Loral. Our goal was to help NASA create a “thing” that would land on Mars and send back information about what the surface of Mars is like today.
This afternoon I watched the NASA webcast about the first anniversary of Curiosity on Mars. Watching the interviews, the videos of the landing, hearing the stories of the team brought back all the excitement of that first mission. It brought back the memories of all that hard work, long days, weeks, and months that we put in to make our VxWorks software work right. It brought back the feelings of being the junior guy on the team, learning from my mentors, contributing to a fantastic journey. It brought back all the excitement of being at JPL when Pathfinder landed and sent back its first images of Mars. And it brought back the excitement of the follow-on missions, and other missions using our software to do wonderful things.
Bobak Ferdowsi became an internet sensation, partly due to his youthful hairdo, and also due to his incredible concentration as part of the ED&L team. “Became an Internet Sensation, was too busy to notice it”. It was heartening to hear him say that one of his favorite images was the first image sent back on landing. “Because, well, that first image from Pathfinder is part of what inspired me to do this.” This being, becoming an engineer for NASA at JPL. Bobak, thank you for saying this. He also shared that one of the greatest rewards for him has been seeing school age children become engaged in Curiosity, and sciences, and school.
Bobak, this is one of the best benefits of what we do. We create and extend a legacy of incredible achievements. A legacy of success by using our imagination and skill to attempt and achieve improbable goals. While we’re working on these projects we may feel very isolated, especially when trying to explain it to others outside of our profession – our families, our friends. When it comes down to it, though, everyone is watching: scientists, teachers, farmers, politicians, and most importantly, children. Children who grow up to someday become the next generation of scientists, politicians, and spacecraft pilots.
Adam Savage was also interviewed this afternoon. You may remember him as the very well-spoken gentleman who explained what was going on and why, who eventually stepped down from the limelight to attend to his growing family. Adam explained some of the findings we have made through Curiosity, and part of why we did it. Of Curiosity’s success Adam said “through it.. we dream a little bigger, we reach a little farther, we become perhaps a little better.” Adam, all I can say is… #ThankYouForTheTerror.
To Bobak, and Adam, thank you for building on this heritage of success and achievement, and thank you for sharing.
I’ve had the incredible fortune of working wind various teams at Wind River since 1991. We’ve helped the world’s scientists and engineers create smarter devices, faster networks, more reliable computer-driven instruments and tools, better technology, a better world. We’ve assisted our clients in achieving fantastic goals. They’ve done things like diving deep into the ocean, seeing into the Sun, and even visiting distant worlds. Our real-time operating system VxWorks has enabled robots that have walked into volcanoes, enabled surgeons to work on patients across oceans, clean up toxic waste, explore space, and even allow telerobotic operation between the earth and the ISS. I’m looking forward to what the next few decades will bring. Today, Wind River’s rich technology heritage and portfolio including operating systems, market differentiated software, development tools, and partner collaborations operate on a myriad of platforms and are helping to enable movements such as the Internet of Things, and beyond.
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