Three weeks from tonight, an amiable, whip-smart engineer named Ray Baker will be staring into his computer screen at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hopeful and helpless — or, as he puts it, "sweating blood."
The night will have been 10 years and $2.5 billion in the making, incorporating the work of 5,000 people in 37 states. And then, 154 million miles from home, the fate of the most ambitious machine humans have sent to another planet will rest on a seven-minute landing sequence so far-fetched it looks like something Wile E. Coyote devised to catch the Road Runner.
After a journey of nearly nine months, the six-wheel laboratory NASA has dubbed Curiosity is scheduled to touch down on Mars at 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5.
Curiosity's science could captivate the public like no other space mission in recent memory. The robot is equipped with a nuclear-powered lab capable of vaporizing rocks and ingesting soil, furthering the search for signs of life, revolutionizing the study of Mars and potentially paving the way for human exploration.
Initially, though, the allure of the mission will come in its daredevil landing on the floor of a crater. In the time it takes to drive to the grocery store, the spacecraft will change shape like a toy Transformer six times, slowing from 13,000 mph to 1.7 mph while using 76 pyrotechnic devices, ropes, knives and the largest supersonic parachute ever built.
"When you work through the engineering, it actually makes a lot of sense," said Baker, who has been an engineer since 2001 at La Cañada Flintridge's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the mission for NASA. "But it looks crazy."
What's more, the entire sequence must run on its own, because Mars is so far away that scientists can't fly the craft remotely; they will have sent their last command to the spacecraft two hours earlier.