Curiosity’s Chief Engineer, Rob Manning, recounts the story of putting an entirely new kind of lander on Mars! With a total cost of $2.6 billion over eleven years, I was surprised to find the team was rushed the entire time (which eventually caused the two year launch date postponement) and corners were cut the entire way… until I heard the whole story.
Manning’s informal and candid delivery conveys the entirely daunting task of putting Curiosity on Mars, in addition to explaining design details and technical information in an easy to understand format. Manning was a part of the first team that proposed an entirely new landing technology never before attempted on previous missions. The scope of Curiosity’s mission only increased in complexity when it was decided to send a rover that could move and explore instead of a stationary lander.
Every part of Curiosity, down to the last machined part, is custom designed and engineered by a team of people who are experts in that one very specific area, from the parachutes to each of ten separate scientific instruments, not to mention all of the people who modeled thousands of possible variations of Curiosity’s landing and roving with computer simulations (since we are unable to accurately simulate the Martian environment on Earth). Every change to one part affects another part, so teams were constantly required to engineer and re-engineer, test and re-test.
Not only were there technical issues to overcome in a group of passionate experts working on the greatest project of their professional careers, but Manning and his team at JPL faced constant pressure from NASA headquarters to meet deadlines with shrinking resources. Manning fully admits to overconfidence and miscalculations that contributed to the decision to delay launch, which emphasizes the human side of this story, our basic drive to explore, and how emotions can sometimes get in the way.
Not only does Manning provide some insight into the complexity of such a costly endeavor, but he reaffirms in me the value and worth of space-exploration projects fueled by our human curiosity. Recommended for anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at one of the greatest scientific achievements of our time.