The Mars Science Laboratory, also dubbed Curiosity, was launched on November 26, 2011, and is scheduled to land in Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. Its mission includes searching for signs of life — past or present — studying the climate and geology of the Martian surface, and otherwise collecting data. The trick is getting it to the surface in one piece, and as the below video from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory demonstrates, the EDL phase — entry, descent, and landing — will be a nerve-wracking process with zero margin for error. To make matters worse, the 14-minute lag in communications between Earth and Mars means that, by the time the Curiosity team receives word that the rover has begun to enter Mars’ atmosphere, Curiosity will have already been safely on Martian soil for seven minutes…or destroyed for that same amount of time. There’s a reason the EDL phase has been nicknamed the “seven minutes of terror.”
It’s jaw-dropping to hear how many different, complicated, and precisely timed sequences will go into landing Curiosity on the Red Planet, and knowing that the failure of any one of them could result in mission failure. There’s a reason the video ends with the message “Dare Mighty Things.” Damn right. That’s how we as a species got this far, and even if many of us seem to have forgotten how to dream big, that just makes the ones who still do that much more important. So if you see any NASA folks chain-smoking and looking sleep-deprived on August 5th, maybe buy them a nice cup of joe.