After over a decade of careful engineering and preparation, NASA’s rover Curiosity landed on Mars Monday morning.
The engineering team, comprised of thousands of people across multiple countries, included Penn State alumni Ray Baker, Class of 1998, and Brian Schratz, Class of 2006.
Baker, a senior propulsion systems engineer, held a crucial role as the cognizant engineer for the Mars landing engines that slowed Curiosity down and lowered it to the surface. Curiosity is the heaviest piece of machinery ever sent to Mars.
“Development started many years ago,” Baker said. “I started working on it in June 2001. It’s been a long time and a lot of technology went into it.”
There were genuine concerns about the rover’s landing, and the fact that it landed intact is a huge success for NASA.
“Everybody in the morning should be sticking their chests out and saying, ‘That’s my rover on Mars,’ ” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on NASA TV.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrated with cheers and high-fives as the rover descended to the surface.
Schratz was a part of the entry descent and landing communications (EDLCOMM) team. He was in charge of managing all of the telecommunication during the mission, making sure that the hardware and software were in check.
“It is what I have always wanted to do since I can remember,” Schratz said. “I worked with an amazing team of technicians through years of design and development and it took seven or eight months to assemble it.”
The landing of Curiosity was a complex and incredible process in the actions of getting it on the ground, Baker said.
“The way that they landed the spacecraft was the first way that it had ever been done,” David Spencer, professor of aerospace engineering, said. “A lot of things could’ve gone wrong but they made it happen.”
Both Baker and Schratz consider their work on Curiosity an invaluable experience.
“It was absolutely unbelievable,” Baker said. “I’m at a loss for words because it was a remarkable privilege to be a part of something like this. We have a lot of dedicated people that we got to work with.”
The engineering programs that Baker and Schratz studied at the university helped prepare them for their roles on the Curiosity team.
“The flight projects I did as a student were much simpler but the basic principles are much the same,” Schratz said. “The teamwork we did was incredibly useful as well as working in a fast-paced environment. They are simplistic but basic principles and it is because of Penn State that I am here today.”
When Curiosity finally reached the surface of Mars, the team members were overwhelmed with a mix of emotions.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” Baker said. “I was terrified and there was an adrenaline rush, but it was over so quickly that I almost wondered if it had actually happened. After that it was a wave of emotion, it was like seeing the births of my children that I will never forget.”
With the array of complications that could have occurred, Schratz was satisfied knowing the teams’ efforts had been successful.
“It was a picture perfect landing,” Schratz said. “We could not have asked for anything better. We all came together and got it on the ground.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.