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Mars Exploration Program

Martian Diaries

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Changing Of The Guard
By Jeffrey Marlow

Astronaut Leland Melvin escorts into JPL at the beginning of the Curiosity Landing Night event.

At 12:20 a.m., after a jubilant press conference had been dismissed, after and Morgan Freeman had retreated to Hollywood, and after the pop-up gift shops had stopped selling Mars Science Lab-emblazoned polos, two men met on a staircase outside a blocky building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

One man was leaving, dressed in the light blue shirt of the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) team. The other was ascending the stairs, a member of the science team eager to get inside. They shook hands and shared some words; they'd performed this ritual before, and they enacted it with a dignified sense of calm.

"Enjoy your new rover," said blue shirt with a final wave. He slung his bag over his shoulder and walked into the pre-dawn night. Having safely landed Curiosity on the surface, the Entry, Descent and Landing team was now officially off the clock.

Over the next hour, dozens of scientists trickled into the building as Entry, Descent and Landing engineers vacated it. It was like the first day of college, and the science team was eager to move in and make friends. The delight of a safe landing translated into a single-minded quest to determine where Curiosity had settled and what the local geology might mean.

Adam Steltzner rallies the Entry, Descent and Landing team in front of the Curiosity model prior to landing.

The enthusiasm made up for the small, grainy images, which were intended to provide evidence of a safe landing rather than geological insight. Today's Geology Team Lead, John Grant, rallies the troops: "It would be good after an hour or so to chat a little bit about what we see," he says. "I know it will be vague and general, but it'll be a start."

"And oh yeah, we're on Mars," he says, disbelievingly.

The team whips out the Red Bull and Double Shots - most are taking the full immersion approach to the transition to Mars time - and starts examining data of the landing ellipse.

The science phase of the mission is officially underway, and hallway conversations have traded engineering jargon ("trajectory correction maneuver") for scientific lingo ("brecciated basal units"). The latest chapter in Mars exploration has begun.