The Olympic Games have supplied the world with scenes of spectacular grace and breathtaking achievement. But for sheer jaw-dropping complexity and drama — to say nothing of unearthly difficulty — no performance has been as astonishing as one that took place a world away from London’s East End. At 1:31 a.m. Monday, following a 345-million-mile voyage that began at Cape Canaveral last November, the robotic explorer Curiosity touched down on Mars, sticking a landing so perfect that engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in whoops of joy and relief.
At nearly 10 feet long and 7 feet tall, Curiosity was far too large to be landed, as earlier Mars rovers were, with simple parachutes and airbags. Instead, NASA devised a descent sequence intended to slow the rover from 13,200 mph to 0 mph in just seven minutes, with nylon tethers from a supersonic “sky crane” gently lowering Curiosity into a mountainous crater near Mars’s equator. Never before had NASA attempted to pull off such a series of maneuvers. They worked magnificently.
Mars isn’t easy to get to — many earlier missions never made it — and Curiosity represented a huge gamble. Yet today’s high stakes are dwarfed by tomorrow’s possibilities. “The wheels of Curiosity,” declared NASA’s director Charles Bolden, “have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars.”