Entry, Descent, and Landing is a stressful process for everyone, spiked with "seven minutes of terror" and its attendant grey hairs. But, enduring the tension as the head scientist of a tent-pole Mars mission is an entirely different experience.
Steve Squyres, one of the 400+ scientists gathered to watch the landing Sunday night, knows the feeling. Squyres was the top scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers, the twin robots Spirit and Opportunity that landed on opposite sides of the planet in 2004. "I was terrified about Spirit, which came first," says Squyres. "It was because it was untested, and so much was riding on it. Once Spirit worked well, I was a lot more confident in Opportunity," which landed three weeks later.
This time around, Squyres can relax, at least a little bit. "With Spirit and Opportunity, I had 16 years of my professional career invested in it," he recalls. For Mars Science Laboratory, Squyres is a member of both the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer and Sample Analysis at Mars instrument teams. It's a hefty workload, but doesn't bring the sense of responsibility of the Principal Investigator role. "My personal stress level is lower. There has, of course, been an equivalent amount of hard work put in by the team, but I can sit back a bit more."
Squyres professed "a great deal of confidence in the sky crane landing system" - confidence that proved well placed as Curiosity returned its first grainy images late Sunday night.