By Todd Halvorson, Florida Today
PASADENA, CA - Facing unfavorable odds, the U.S. scored a huge victory on Mars on Monday, landing the largest and most sophisticated mobile laboratory ever launched to another planet.
At an early-morning news conference, engineers engaged in high-fives, hugs and boisterous applause after NASA's Mars Science Laboratory and the Curiosity rover survived a perilous seven-minute plunge to the surface of the red planet.
The 1:32 a.m. landing came two years late. The $2.5 billion mission came in $900 million over budget. And the very future of the nation's Mars exploration program was at stake .
Almost 70% of previous missions to Mars had ended in failure, and the unmitigated success seemed to be a vindication of sorts.
"There are many out in the community that say NASA has lost its way, that we don't know how to explore, that we've lost our moxie," said John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
"I want you to look around tonight. All those folks with the blue shirts, and think about what we've achieved. I think it's fair to say that NASA knows how to explore. We've been exploring, and we're on Mars," he said.
"This feat that you saw tonight is something that only the United States of America can do. And the rover is made in the USA."
The car-sized Curiosity rover landed at Gale Crater, a gaping expanse that stretches 100 miles across, at 1:32 a.m. EDT. Images beamed across interplanetary space started showing up about seven minutes later.
"That rocked," said NASA deputy project manager Richard Cook. "Seriously. Was that not cool?"
President Obama lauded the landing in a statement, calling it "an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future."
Earlier in the night, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had admitted a successful landing was a long shot.
"It's like us launching something from Kennedy Space Center and having it land in the Rose Bowl, on the 50-year-line, on a Frisbee," Bolden told an assembled group of social media followers.
Eight months after launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Mars Science Laboratory separated from a cruise stage that had propelled it on an interplanetary journey that covered 352 million miles.
Back on Earth, engineers received a signal confirming that event at 1:14 a.m. EDT. It took the signal 14 minutes to reach Earth.
Ten minutes later, signals showed the Mars Science Laboratory hit the top of the planet's atmosphere at about 13,200 mph. Altitude: 81.5 miles.
The spacecraft went through a "straighten up and fly right" roll maneuver four minutes later, purposely shedding ballast so it would tilt slightly, creating aerodynamic lift.
Just like a space shuttle making a guided re-entry to Earth's atmosphere, the Mars Science Lab and its cocooned Curiosity rover flew sweeping S-curves to bleed off speed.
Temperatures on its ablative heat shield were expected to build up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit during the dramatic descent. Engineers in Mission Control cheered each step in the plunge.
A supersonic parachute deployed, the heat shield separated, and then Curiosity emerged from a protective back shell.
Eight retrorockets on a separate descent stage ignited before Curiosity was lowered to the ground on three bridles -- a so-called "sky crane" maneuver that gently deposited the rover on its six wheels.
The bridles severed, the descent stage then flew off to a pre-programmed crash landing about a half-mile away.
The first-ever guided entry allowed a pinpoint touchdown in a landing zone near the base of Aerolis Mons, informally known as Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high mountain taller than any in the contiguous U.S.
The one-ton rover, equipped with the most sophisticated suite of science instruments ever sent to another planet, will now be exhaustively checked out before beginning its mission, expected to last at least two years.
Rover instruments will be used to determine if Mars ever harbored the primary building blocks of life: water, a source of energy and carbonaceous compounds.