A busy week for NASA: Robots on Mars, returning to the moon and future human missions

More than 90 million miles away, NASA’s InSight lander touched down safely on Mars on Monday. About two minutes later, Earth received the spacecraft’s first picture of the reddish surface by way of two briefcase-sized satellites called MarCO, which traveled with InSight to Mars. These small cubesats, which were added to the mission as a technology demonstration, confirmed to the InSight team that their spacecraft had made a precise landing. 

More than 5 billion people from all around the world watched the nail-biting moments as the spacecraft touched down on an unforgiving planet where only 40 percent of spacecraft sent by humanity have succeeded. A taxi driver the next day told me he pulled over to the side of the road so he wouldn’t miss this epic moment. Whether it is astronauts touching down on the moon in the late ‘60s, spacecraft visiting other worlds, or landers and rovers on Mars — exploration unites us all.

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At NASA, we are deeply aware that such true and transformative exploration is always risky, and it can fail. During the 24 hours prior to landing, we were made aware of just how real that failure can be. We lost contact with one of those brief-cased sized satellites, MarCO-B, for six hours the day before landing. We later discovered a technical issue with the other, MarCO-A, an hour prior to landing. We also decided to slightly boost InSight on Sunday morning to ensure that it avoided landing in hazardous territory with rocks and craters.

During the landing, I sat in the back of the room next to the mission’s lead scientist, Bruce Banerdt — who dedicated nearly two decades of his life to this mission — and members of the engineering team, who worked on this mission for more than six years. Everybody, to varying degree, was nervous — some staring at the screen looking for information, some trying to keep their shaking hands under control.

The team celebrated each successful step — the atmospheric entry, the MarCO-A and -B relays set-up, the parachute deployment, and then, finally, the touchdown. We all knew about the risks associated with each step and the enormity of success as well. When we finally heard the voice confirming a successful landing, Bruce and I hugged amid a room of celebration and relief. Everyone, for those moments, celebrated an amazing human achievement. Viral videos are still making the rounds, showing quivering chins, engineers rocking in their chairs almost in agony, and pumping fists and the widely popular handshake by young engineers. We fear and celebrate in unique ways — and we understand each other when it happens.

To me, the most important meeting was the day before landing when I sat in a room with about 20 navigators, discussing the state of the spacecraft and its precise hours prior to touchdown. Yes, we talked about all the concerns, but as we looked at the most recent data transmitted to our ground tracking stations telling us about the health and landing data from the spacecraft, each opinion was challenged and improved by the team. This, beyond everything else, is the sign of true innovation.

What enables exploration is the willingness to dare and a willingness to risk, while relying on an excellent team of individuals who bring the best they can offer to the table. We at NASA want to and will continually improve our mission teams by including more diverse perspectives and opinions, which is why we collaborate with U.S. companies and international partners. We do not think of leadership and partnership as two opposing values. And with NASA’s Exploration Campaign we deliberately increase the circle by including commercial companies, many of which did not even exist five years ago.

We have to continue learning how to work together in order for all of us to succeed in this risky endeavor to expand our presence beyond Earth. We will make some mistakes along the way, and we may even fail from time to time.

There will be more of these moments to come. Not just on Mars, but also on the moon — landings with robotics and even humans. Every successful landing will enable more challenges, more innovation, and may lead to more ambitious visits and stays on other worlds in our solar system and beyond. Space exploration is more than just daunting risks and rewarding science. These robotic missions represent the first steps before humans make the trip themselves.

At NASA we reach out to other worlds to attempt to turn science fiction into science fact. Exploration represents the best of humanity, inspiring all to work towards a better future. No matter the risks, exploration will always make dreams a reality for us all and inspire future generations to do even more.

Thomas Zurbuchen is the associate administrator for NASA science, coordinating NASA’s science missions. Zurbuchen has authored or coauthored more than 200 articles in refereed journals in solar and heliospheric phenomena. His honors include receiving the National Science and Technology Council Presidential Early Career for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) Award in 2004 and three NASA Group Achievement Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @Dr_ThomasZ.