The Landing of Curiosity: What’s Your 7 Minutes of Terror?

The date was August 6, 2012, at 1:32 a.m. ET; the Mars Science Laboratory known as Curiosity landed successfully in a crater on the Red planet.

From the point where it arrived at the planet, guiding the Rover into its entry position, working with a heat-shield at 1,600°F, the initial slow-down stage from the largest and strongest supersonic parachute… This chute applied 65,000 pounds of force and resulted in an acceleration of 9g on the rover when it opened.

Then, the discharge of heat-shield, the radar measurements for landing. Then a rocket powered maneuver, then the back shell separation. Then the famous “sky-crane maneuver with the Rover hanging below the rocket powered crane. Then the gentle touchdown of the Rover on the surface. Disconnecting of the sky-crane lines and finally maneuvering the sky-crane away from the Rover as to not kick up debris on the lander.

All this happens in seven minutes. Did I fail to mention that communication between Mars and Earth takes 14 minutes? That means once you receive communication from the lander that it has entered the atmosphere, it has been on the surface of the Red planet for seven minutes, either dead or alive. This mission had a zero margin of error.

Not that my seven minutes of terror competes with JPL and Curiosity, but I have a few. Around 10 years ago I was working on an older, high-power amplifier system used in satellite communications. The unit had over 300 watts of RF power. This was a two-piece unit, one half being the power supply and the other the RF section. After a rebuild, my associate and I were to turn the unit on, run it, and check it out for any issues for a couple of hours. Little did I know that the interconnection's power cable connector was twisted out of position by 90 degrees due to the broken connector alignment key. When I turned on the power — bang!

I had one hand on the rack mount handle and the other on the switch and a tremendous surge went through my body. The paint on the handle was burned into my skin. I had burns all around my hand on the power switch. My heart had stop beating until my associate was able to trip the circuit breaker. Days later, I measured the power supply — it was 9500 volts with the capability for supplying 10 Amps. Fortunately for me, at the time of the accident there were EMTs present at the site and they pronounced me alive. They said if you can talk, you can probably walk.

Now what's your story? Have you seen the lights brighter than the midday sun? Have you had to wait seven (or more) minutes for a project to sink or swim? Perhaps the proper completion of your assignment meant saving not only your job but the jobs for the whole group? Thankfully, we don't take chances like we did with the space program in the 1960s. The Curiosity Mars Rover program will maybe spark some great ideas and maybe a small amount of chance-taking (but not too much). Thing big, live large.

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28 comments on “The Landing of Curiosity: What’s Your 7 Minutes of Terror?

  1. eafpres
    September 20, 2013

    @Peter–wow, one of those “if you live to tell about it” great stories.  I suppose in the future you hit on-switches with a wooden stick from a safe distance!

    Having worked in a few startups, where for lack of a better term things were usually “resource constrained”, there were times we had to ship something and worry about field reliability.  Having almost no test resources for things like shock, vibration, or temp-Humidity, we had to “make do”.  I recall a telematics product that was complex electro-mechanical assembly that had to survive years of use on the top of semi-trailers.  Exposed to burning sun, rain, ice, and truck washers.  My 7 minutes extended for about 6 months once we started shipping, before I got over my anxiety that we would start getting tons of failures and customers screaming.  Here are a few things we did:

    We mounted an antenna onto the lid of a large rubbermaid tub, so we could coil up the 20 feet of dual coax inside the tub.  We monted the tub in the back of a technician's pickup.  For months I paid him for a car wash a daliy.  Periodically we would test the antenna, and it was good.

    We calculated shock forces based on SAE specs, then converted them to drop distances and repeatedly dropped, tested, dropped, tested, etc.

    For T-H we bought some chicken egg incubators, cranked up the heat, and put pans of water in some, salt water in others, and cycled the antennas in and out.  For cold, we used the refrigerator which also housed lunches and ice cream.

    For sealing, we also got large plastic trash cans and filled them with water at various depths, and tested lots of antennas.

    After all that, and a bunch of other “qualification” tests, we were shipping,  I'm happy to say it all turned out well but those first few months were agonizing.

  2. Netcrawl
    September 20, 2013

    @Peter that was great! a great achievement for both NASA and Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) Whether in the space, military and consumer, electronics designers and engineers are facing  tough challenges: how to create low-power designs that maximized battery life while minimizing overall design size. Engineers often find quite diificult when addressing big issue in on-chip power conversion in RFICs. Currently we used SOS silicon-on sapphire technology to minimize power consumption in many appilcations-from micropower chrag epumps mebedded in RF switches, to power manaagement/bias control chips and even DC to DC converter products for NASA's space explorations ( like the curiosity lad rover).

    SOS not just address power consumption in RF , but it also address another factor-its noise , SOS-based ICs feature an isulating sapphire substrate that provide some good isolation. A new and highly specialized version of SOS is UltarCMOS.     


  3. goafrit2
    September 20, 2013

    Sure – every designer especially in the ASIC world has this fear that when you power that test chip, it can be dead. I mean you get this chip from TSMC and you have to drive it with voltage. What happens next happens but you need to think that any mistake is another 3 months of wait!

  4. Davidled
    September 21, 2013

    At least it is better that there is a qualification test to validate antenna. In some cases, it is not easy to find out qualification test due to the sample size such voice recognition. So, sometime, engineer spends more time to get the legitimate validation flow.  

  5. Vishal Prajapati
    September 21, 2013

    It was the most amazing thing for me atleast. How accurate the estimation for the landing of rover sitting lacs of miles away. There must be some stringent and very accurate simulation methods to actually run the tests here on earth. I wonder is there any deadlines given to engineers working on such a projects like given to the engineers working with normal products? I mean if an engineer becomes anxius for completing task within deadline he might commit some mistake which has to be paid off later.

  6. PZman
    September 21, 2013

    As I understand, there were many deadlines as in any project management situation. I hear the PM charting is off the wall in size. As for accurate location to land; just remember the Apollo missions and their mission “computer” was a powerful as a handheld calculator, not even a scientific calculator. These accomplishments are pride and joy engineers everywhere,

  7. PZman
    September 21, 2013

    Man do I lve what you did. Creativity at its best. You tested the project, accomplished the project and did so within an inadequate budget, time constrains and especially equipment to test & evaluate. Not sure what I like better the drop test or your heat test. Congratulations on surviving & scintillating your six month of hell.

  8. Davidled
    September 21, 2013

    Today, engineer gets the pressure to release the product in the market on time. This is called deadlines. On the pressure, it is possible to make more mistakes due to the mental and body stress. Therefore, Collaboration of all team is very essential in company perspective to avoid this type mistake or error. Let's image how many engineers are working on the Curiosity project.

  9. Netcrawl
    September 23, 2013

    The quick rush would definitely destroy the product's quality and reliability, and a possible disaster waiting. 

    In designing a good product it takes many heads to design those stuff. Teams of talents often with different skills and methods, tackle the complexity of a particular problem, often without the right tools or appropriate infrastructure. People tend to solve today's electronics complexity by dividing problems into more manageable chunk of works.   

  10. Netcrawl
    September 23, 2013

    Creativity is always good in industry, this help drives innovation and solve key problem, how do we get creative if our we lack something? We need to boost our engineers' morale so that they can focus more on solving problems. Education alone is not enough, we need also to addres some financial matters like salary, etc. and employee empowerment.   

  11. Netcrawl
    September 23, 2013

    Deadline is important in every industry, its keep our project alive if we dont have deadline then we're making innovation here and we're working hard with the problem. we need to push the boundary of limit to grow  and learn more that's why we have deadline. Yes The Apolo Mission is a good example of great achievement, where American engineers worked very hard just to hit their deadline, its a daunting task because they need to start from scratch, to build a montrous rocket capable of sending man on the moon, it's the Saturn V. it's NASA' moonshot they're trying to hit something that totally impossible- the huge size of the project is totally unimaginable, failure is not an option here, it's too big to fail.  

  12. Davidled
    September 23, 2013

    It is no doubt that NASA has a extremely achievement in space during human history. But there is a few failure cases in the space program. I remembered that Colombia Space shuttle had explosive, 2003 due to the vertical tail fin broke apart. NASA gets a lot lesson learned through failure case in both internal or external event.

  13. RedDerek
    September 25, 2013

    Years ago I was the field engineer on a C130 test. Every day we went out flying, I had my usual system check before we taxied out to fly. One day the system check tripped the circuit breaker 12 minutes into the check-out. I tried again, and the breaker tripped a second time. I figured once is fine, the second is “oh oh”. The third was “oh no!”.

    To make the story short, the test was cancelled as I now had to find out the problem why the breaker kept tripping at 12 minutes. First off, 12 minutes is when the main supply of 25kW kicked on. With that known, every time I made a system component change, I had to wait for that 12 minutes to see things worked.

    After numerous system component changes, and hours later (now 11:30 at night), I was on my last power up until I say it has to be in the aircraft wiring. At this point, the project engineer, project manager, program manager, and several other higher-ups were pacing around the aircraft for me to solve the problem – no pressure though :-). Also, instead of running the aircraft engine, the aircraft was powered off a ground power cart. The program manager came up and asked if powering up again was a good idea and all I could respond with, “I have done everything but swap the cables in the aircraft wings. Any suggestions should be made because there is six minutes left to my 12 minute mark.” He walked off without a word.

    At the 12 minute mark, the breaker on the aircraft did not trip. I was plunged into darkness as I now have just tripped the breaker on the power cart. My terror was real.

  14. RedDerek
    September 25, 2013

    OK, ended that on purpose like that…

    Problem was not in the cabling, but in the connector where jet fuel had leaked in and created a block of carbon with the power supply pushing 25 kW into the power pins.

  15. WKetel
    September 25, 2013

    This nightmare started well into my career, and what initiated it was some equipment that I never had anything to do with. The emergency stop on a garbage truck compactor failed to stop the cycle, and a worker was injured. I recognized the button in the newspaper photo as an Allen Bradley 800T series button. I had already designed and shipped dozens of machines, and every one of them had E-Stop circuits which halted all motions, exactly as my customers demanded they do. But at that point I realized that if the two screws retaining the N.C. contact block became loose, and backed out of their threaded holes, that presing the button would not open the contacts. That is what happened on the garbage truck: the screws backed out and pushing the button did not operate the contact block any more.

    I have developed a fix for the problem, and I would be happy to have it published so that it could be implemented at all the plants that have equipment with E-Stop buttons. The fix is easy, simple, and fairly inexpensive, and can be done while the equipment is running, if plant rules would allow for that.

    In the interim, I would suggest that plant electricians check the tightness of the contact block retaining screws on the stop buttons of any equipment that might possibly need to be stopped with an E-Stop button someday. The possibility of a non-functioning safety control is really a “cold sweat” concern.

  16. PZman
    September 27, 2013

    Don't you just love it when the time whittles down some manager just does a handoff to you and says its your problem; fix it. Personally I get a lot of the “you fix it,” with great reasoning such as “we can always count on you or only you can get it done on time.” I wish I was given the time to instruct someone, tech or jr engineer, how this repair or swap-out is going to be done in this period of time.

  17. PZman
    September 27, 2013

    It is quite handy to indentify a component by a simple photograph (not a marketing photo)  congratulations on the A-B switch especially. The simple & easy fix was geart & intuitive. We would all like to see the fix if you could send it along. It is probaly quite useful on some other problems out there.

  18. PZman
    September 27, 2013

    I am with you on that, regarding salaries etc. I also believe that the morale of the worker and recognition of their contribution especially coiming up with a creative solution. Back in the early days, General Electric gave  $25 gift to the best idea of the month and the best idea of the year was $100. I think the money was good, but having your name & idea published in the company newsletter was a greater incentive. Does your company have a newsletter?

  19. WKetel
    September 28, 2013

    PZ, it will take some time and effort to come up with the pictures that give enough detail to be useful. But I can certainly write a description that will be enough for anybody to duplicate the fix. I will send that in later this week. My big concerns would be somebody else claiming credit for this idea, or else somebody claiming that we should have been including this fix all along, since it is so very obvious, and attempting a lwasuit based on somebody having been injured when an E-Stop button didn't function. That alone is a big “cold sweat” concern.

  20. SunitaT
    September 30, 2013

    Around one thousand people congregated in New York's Times Square, to lookout NASA's live transmission of Curiosity's landing stage, as recording was being displayed on the massive monitor. Bobak Ferdowsi, Flight Leader, became a web meme and achieved Twitter superstar position, with 45,000 novel followers logging to his Twitter, owing to his Mohawk haircut with yellow color stars that he put on throughout the onscreen broadcast.

  21. SunitaT
    September 30, 2013

     I think the money was good, but having your name & idea published in the company newsletter was a greater incentive.

    @PZman, I totally agree with you that money is not the only driving factor.I think for many employees getting their name published in the companies newsletter is big achievement itself. Such contributions definitely help the employees to climb up the tech ladder.

  22. SunitaT
    September 30, 2013

    NASA gets a lot lesson learned through failure case in both internal or external event.

    @DaeJ, I am sure NASA is trying everything to improve the safety and reduce failures but space exploration programmes are very challenging and its very difficult to consider all aspects when they do the simulations.

  23. SunitaT
    September 30, 2013

    People tend to solve today's electronics complexity by dividing problems into more manageable chunk of works. 

    @Netcrawl, true working on a project simultaneously by different teams definitely speeds-up the work but it also creates challenges like incompatibility during assembling at the end of the project.

  24. PZman
    September 30, 2013

    SunitaT, I am a firm believer in rewards. Matter of fact for 7 minutes of terror you should receive 14 minutes of glory, just like Bobak Ferdowski was able to grab.

  25. PZman
    September 30, 2013

    One of the other issues is the direction of the entire group. If everyone except one team is on completion schedule and design compliance then everyone falls to the lowest level of completion and possible failure due to no fault of their own.

  26. SunitaT
    December 31, 2013

    If everyone except one team is on completion schedule and design compliance then everyone falls to the lowest level of completion and possible failure due to no fault of their own.

    @PZman, true and that is why team work is always important. Success of the mission depends on how good the team work is. Attributing the success of the mission to single team or single person may not be proper since its always a team effort.

  27. SunitaT
    December 31, 2013

    you should receive 14 minutes of glory

    @PZman, I think we got more than 14 minutes of glory. Sadly rough Mars terrain is damaging the Rover's wheels.

  28. PZman
    January 2, 2014

    There is no doubt we received more than 7 or 14 minutes of glory. I still watch the video of the animations & landing and still I am amazed. Not to unglorify the ISS, there is great stuff happening up there (mostly recently was space walks to replace the condenser unit) I also watch the moon landings. There is something big about outer space if you just dream big.

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