7 minutes of terror behind us, years of joyful exploration ahead

24 hours ago, I held my breath with the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as they waited for the Mars Curiosity Rover to roar through the Martian atmosphere, deploy its supersonic parachute, fire its rockets, and get lowered to the surface of the Red Planet via “sky crane.”

Afterward, I stayed up to watch the press conference. In his comments, Adam Steltzner, lead engineer for EDL (entry, descent, and landing) said, “We humans are toolmakers, explorers, agriculturalists, pioneers.

Of all the comments made by NASA/JPL team members last night, this brief comment really struck home. Steltzner weaves the story of this landing of one robotic rover into the fabric of our greater human story — from paleolithic toolmaking, neolithic agriculture, and the spread of Homo sapiens across the globe through our next steps to our sister planets and beyond.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden‘s introduction made me proud to be American, but Adam Steltzner made me proud to be a human being.

Here’s one of the first, low-resolution pictures Curiosity took through a dust cover on a “Haz Cam”:

Curiosity Rover picture

And here’s a spectacular photo of Curiosity parachuting down to Mars, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:

Curiosity Parachute Landing Spotted by NASA Orbiter [detail]

We can expect high-resolution color photos later this week.

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