The Argentine Responsible for a Successful Mars Landing

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Now here's an impressive feat, an 8 month journey of over 350 million miles. That's how far NASA's latest interplanetary rover has traveled to reach Mars. The rover is called Curiosity, it's the size of a compact car and carries its own chemistry lab that can shoot laser beams and analyze rocks. Curiosity is due to land on the red planet Sunday night, it's all part of a multi-billion dollar space mission that involves teams from the US, Russia, France and Spain. One of the most daring aspects of the mission is the landing, here's actor William Shatner describing it in a NASA Video.

[Audio Clip]

William Shatner: When she arrives at Mars, Curiosity has 7 minutes to go from 13,000 miles an hour to a soft landing. These so called 7 minutes of terror, encompass a sequence of steps that we can not control or even witness in real time, because signals take 14 minutes to reach Earth from Mars. Curiosity's heat shield burning at nearly 3 thousand degrees Fahrenheit will protect the rover as she slows down rapidly. On the way down, the space craft fires thrusters to stay on target for Gale crater.
[End of Audio Clip]

Schachter: Now after those steps there's still a parachute that needs to open, a heat shield that flies off, and on and on until a pyrotechnic device severs the rover from its jet pack on the ground. Whew, it sounds like science fiction but Miguel San Martin assures us it's all true, he's the guidance, navigation and control chief engineer at the Mars Science Laboratory Project in Pasadena, Miguel c'mon, between you and me, this is nuts isn't it?

Miguel San Martin: It, A little bit, but.


San Martin: Calling of mind says, product of rational thought, [laughs] but, uhm, during constraints by the laws of physics, I mean you come in at that velocity, you need to stop the machine, and that's what you need to do.

Schachter: Now, as we heard in the video, Curiosity will land in something called the Gale crater.

San Martin: Correct.

Schachter: Uh, why that particular place?

San Martin: Well it's the result of a very interesting process that I, that we witnessed, as engineers. Where the scientists have to pick the right place to go, we as engineers, we give them certain conditions, so given that the scientists met, the scientists from all over the world, and they chose the Gale crater which is really exciting, because you have this mountain in the center that is 4 km, or 5km mountain that is made out of strata for many, many years. It has a whole history of Mars, in different layers of material, so the scientists described that once the rover starts to analyze the layers at the bottom and it goes uphill, essentially it's like reading a book.

Schachter: Now, Uh, for many scientists who work with NASA, it is a dream come true, to either go into space themselves or, you know, work on rockets that get up into space. You have an amazing story yourself. You grew up in Argentina and at one point dreamed of working for NASA. How did that happen?

San Martin: Well, you know, I was interested in engineering since I can remember. I grew up in the sixties, the space program was at its peak, which I followed, you know. So I actually followed the landing of Viking, I just happened to be in my family's farm in the Patagonia when that took place. So, the only thing I had was an AM radio that I used to listen to the BBC reporting on the mission, and then I remember that the transmission ended and the next morning I found out of the great success, so, for me, that was, I want to be part of that, and I was lucky enough that I was able to do it.

Schachter: Miguel the rover lands on Mars Sunday night, we're told about 10:30 p.m. on the west coast.

San Martin: Correct.

Schachter: Will you get any sleep Sunday night, do you think?

San Martin: Uhm, probably not, I mean, this business being 99.9% right, or in other words 0.1% wrong, it might not be enough. On paper it looks awesome, the statistics of success and our simulations they give us plenty of margin in the system, but it, just that little thing, can give us a bad day.

Schachter: Miguel San Martin is the guidance, navigation, and control chief engineer at the Mars Science Laboratory Project in Pasadena, California, Sunday night if all goes well he will land Curiosity on Mars. Miguel, thank you so much.

San Martin: Thank you.