Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flying Above Mars

You think we have it tough flying here on Earth? Consider the problems of aviating above Mars.

CURIOSITY. On August 6, 2012, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, after launching from Cape Canaveral on November 2011. The rover will investigate Mars' climate and geology to determine whether life could have ever been supported.
Like most pilots, I've been a major fan of the space program since long before there was one. As a kid, I built models of everything from biplanes to jets. My heros were Yeager, Hoover and Crossfield, and I was a voracious reader of anything to do with flying.

I was also a big fan of science-fiction, futuristic stories of exploring the universe. I read Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl, among others, and hoped that I might someday possess the imagination to emulate them.

In my own little, nonfiction world, I've written at least a dozen articles about space travel and the benefits of space technology, and I've been one of NASA's strongest boosters. Last year, I was one of the last journalists to fly the world's only motion-based Space Shuttle simulator at NASA headquarters in Houston.

Back in the early '80s when the Journalist in Space program was announced, I applied enthusiastically, knowing I had little chance against folks such as Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and Hugh Downs. Whatever my chances might have been, they evaporated with the explosion of Challenger in January 1986 and the death of teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts.

Even so, space exploration remained a fascinating preoccupation. Over the years, I've interviewed astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin and Frank Borman. I've also visited the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral several times and witnessed a half-dozen launches.

I was probably as enthusiastic about the recent landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, as the JPL scientists who built the one-ton, SUV-sized vehicle. It was truly an amazing triumph, especially considering that Mars is roughly 154 million miles away. Any command from Earth requires nearly 12 minutes to cover such a distance. The descent from orbit to landing required only six minutes, so the computers aboard Curiosity had to be totally autonomous. They needed to make all their own decisions during the descent and actual touchdown.

They did it pretty well. Curiosity blazed through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph then slowed to land at 1.7 mph. Now, Curiosity will begin the tasks for which it was designed, exploring Mars to answer the big question: Was there once life on the Red Planet?


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