(Update: More great images here.)
Last night Hiro and I went to Griffith Observatory to watch the live NASA feed during the Curiosity rover’s approach to Mars.
Wow, wow, wow!
Everything about the evening contributed to one of the most intensely suspenseful events I’ve experienced. A noticeable increase in traffic greeted our approach to Griffith Park. After a lucky break finding a parking spot, we joined the steady stream of people hiking up to the observatory. We overheard a mother answering her son’s questions about Mars and teenagers talking about possible science majors. The buzz was infectious.
When we reached the top, however, the Observatory lawn and entry were not particularly crowded. It wasn’t until we reached the underground wing, where the live stream was projected on a large display, that we were faced with hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of eager watchers. We were told the viewing area was over-capacity, so we joined the throngs on the upper deck straining to catch a view of the screen below. Griffith Observatory staff shouted the updates for us. “If everything has gone well, in 30 seconds we begin EDL, or Entry Descent and Landing, the ‘7 minutes of terror’. … The vehicle makes contact with the Mars atmosphere… Now!” Although we wouldn’t hear from the actual rover for another 14 minutes, we had a play-by-play about what should be happening at that moment on Mars. It was delightful to imagine the events unfolding so far away. The people behind us were translating the announcements into Tagalog and Spanish as we waited eagerly for the first signals from Curiosity.
“News from the rover! Entering the Martian atmosphere at 13,200mph.” Each announcement came with cheers from the crowd. “Rover will miss crater center by 232 meters.” Griffith staff explained this was good news because Gale crater is about the size of Los Angeles. Cheers erupted again. Every stage of the EDL was announced and each time the tension rose. When we heard “24 meters from surface!” the hall got quiet. When the JPL stream announced touchdown, and the scientists on screen started celebrating, the place erupted! I was almost moved to tears by the relief, the excitement, and the sound of hundreds of people so excited.
The 14-minute delay had an amazingly artful effect… We were able to hear the stages announced once, like a practice run, in advance of the actual signals from Curiosity. When the time came for touchdown… we were ready!
The fact that so many folks turned out to cheer on NASA was deeply inspiring. NASA has done an amazing job designing projects that people care about and also explaining them in compelling ways. The event made me love NASA, Griffith Observatory, and my fellow, curious Angelinos.
Congratulations to everyone who worked on Curiosity thus far. We’ll be cheering you on from here!