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Curiosity on Mars

Curiosity’s landing on Mars this week culminates a 352-million mile voyage and represents one of our greatest technological achievements – landing a full-scale laboratory on another planet!

Image of Mount Sharp, taken from Curiosity on MarsThere are cool techno gizmos – dual cameras with 3D capabilities, a laser to zap rocks from a distance and analyze their elemental composition, an instrument that uses X-ray analysis to identify minerals in a sample, and another that can detect carbon and other chemicals crucial for life using three different laboratory methods.

All this on a one-ton vehicle that was lowered from a hovering “sky crane” using a landing procedure that not only was never tried before, but could not even be tested on the earth!  It had to be developed using software simulations.

Curiosity’s primary mission is finding life on Mars, or at least evidence that it might once have been there.

Thinking about what this means reminds me of watching Neil Armstrong take man’s first steps on the moon. In the true meaning of the word, awesome!

But what prompted me to write this blog is to think of the complexity of the project itself – all the moving parts that just went into launching and landing the vehicle, not to mention all the individual robotic components…and, of course, the mission itself.

I think back on several complex projects I have worked on – including developing speech recognition software and Voice over IP software – and the project management and technical skills each member of the team brought to bear to achieve the overall goal. In some cases, we, too, were trying things that had never been done before (although not on this scale!).  In the beginning phases of these projects, we would get excited when we got a phone call to go through or simply if the software compiled without errors. There were other times when we thought the project would never work.  Then, when the full-blown project was finally rolled out, there was definitely a sense of pride of seeing our accomplishments in commercial use.

I can’t imagine how the NASA engineers feel right now.

When I think of the complexity of their project compared to any that I’ve worked on, I am humbled. This effort took a lot of planning, a lot of thought, and a lot of work by the entire team just to get the project this far.

Even now, when I am stumped and wondering how I am going to get some software piece to work, I am always inspired by these types of projects that demonstrate that, yes, it can be done...I am just not seeing it yet.

To quote from a blog by one of my colleagues here at ArcherPoint, Alan Campbell, “Just sit down and think about it.”

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Earlier in the year I bumbled into a night session at Death Valley where NASA scientists discussed their preparation for the Mars mission at Death Valley.  They said that Death Valley was the closest thing to Mars.  They had been there for years preparing for the mission. Great presentations by dedicated and excited scientists. 

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