Commentary: Ralph Milliken

“Touchdown confirmed” for Mars rover

August 6, 2012  |  Media Contact: David Orenstein |  401-863-1862
“Touchdown confirmed” - Ralph Milliken, a member of the science team for Curiosity, the Mars rover, was in California for the descent and landing. “It is simply a fantastic, unbelievable feat of engineering.”
“Touchdown confirmed” Ralph Milliken, a member of the science team for Curiosity, the Mars rover, was in California for the descent and landing. “It is simply a fantastic, unbelievable feat of engineering.”
When a NASA official announced, “Touchdown confirmed,” at about 1:30 a.m. today (Aug. 6, 2012), the engineers at Mission Control hugged and cheered. So did the science team, of which Ralph Milliken, assistant professor of geological science, is a member. With the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity safely on the Martian surface and his shift almost ended, Milliken described the experience for David Orenstein and talked about what happens now. (See also a pre-landing interview).)

I was here at the Jet Propulsion Lab and we were in one of our operations buildings with the entire science team, which consists of a few hundred people. It’s a large group, probably the largest science team a mission has ever had. We were all here together viewing the live streaming from the mission operations where the engineers were. We were cheering and clapping with every little signal they got back that confirmed that a certain step had taken place in the entry. When they got the final signal confirming that touchdown had occurred, all 300 to 400 of us went pretty crazy.

To me it is unbelievable. It is simply a fantastic, unbelievable feat of engineering. Everyone who watched the animation of how this rover was supposed to land on Mars would think, “That’s crazy.” That is just absolutely crazy to do something like that. But they are truly the greatest engineers in the world at the JPL. It worked beautifully without a hitch. It was just unbelievable. Spectacular. They could not have hoped for it to go any smoother than it did. It’s absolutely amazing and shows that all of the hard work over the last eight to 10 years really paid off.

I’m going to go home and sleep a little bit. But we’ll be back on shift at about midnight Pacific time. The first week here, we really won’t be doing a whole lot of science in terms of working the instruments themselves. We’ll take some pictures with the cameras but really for quite a while here we’re going to be doing a lot of health checks with the rover. The engineers will be doing a lot of checks to make sure all the parts are moving correctly, that every instrument and every part of the rover is healthy and that it’s operating as it should and that it’s accepting commands like it should. It’s going to be a longer process. It’s a marathon and not a sprint. It will be some time before we even try to move the wheels. With an asset like this — a $2.5-billion rover that just landed in that crazy way on the surface of Mars — we want to make sure we are very careful with it. When the engineers give the green light, we’ll be able to drive and rove on Mars.

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