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Oklahoma Memories

Mars Rover Anniversary


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"Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings that landed in the Jersey farmland tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars."

For centuries man has been fascinated with outer space, travel to the moon, and invasions from Mars. This month is the anniversary of the first successful mission by NASA, investigating what really makes up the red planet Mars. From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Mars came closer to the planet Earth in August 2003 than it had in thousands of years. NASA decided in the summer of 2000 to take advantage of this favorable planetary geometry to send two rovers to the planet Mars. The two rovers were named Spirit and Opportunity. Both rovers were launched from Cape Canaveral. Spirit was launched on June 10, 2003. Opportunity followed with a nighttime launch on July 7. Spirit landed on Mars on Jan. 4, 2004, with Opportunity landing almost a month later, on January 25, 2004. When Opportunity landed, Opportunity traveled about 220 yards while bouncing 26 times and then rolling after impact. It finally came to rest inside a small crater. One scientist called the landing an "interplanetary hole in one." Opportunity had flown 283 million miles from Earth and then landed only about 16 miles from the center of the target area.

An Oklahoma City native, Mark Boyles is the Mission Assurance Manager for the rovers. Boyles was born in Oklahoma City and graduated from Northeast High School before going on to college. Boyles was at the Oklahoma History Center recently and talked about the difficulty involved in the Mars rover mission.

"Entry, descent and landing to a planet, or basically, landing on a planet is the hardest thing that we do, so far at least, we may come up with something harder, but I don't know of many people at JPL or NASA in general that would say that there's anything harder than landing - certainly for robotic missions. When you get into man flight - I don't work the man's arena so I won't compare to that - I would assume landing a human is even much harder. But landing on a planet, a robot on a planet, is very difficult. Entry, descent and landing into Mars is, basically, takes six minutes. During that time, for the rovers, there were hundreds of events that had to occur in lockstep synchronous fashion. Things like pyros - I don't know if you know what a pyro is - but a pyro initiator, a pyro event, it's basically an explosive event that can be - is an item basically that can be used to open something up like a cover. Basically if there's a cover that's closed, and what's holding it closed will often be some sort of latch, and a pyro event is what's used to open up that latch, or for instance, on MER we had hundreds of pyro events throughout the entire EDL sequence, and that included things like the parachute - basically opening up the parachute canister so the parachute can come out - there were things like, there were several, I don't know how many pyro events on the heat shield. There's the arrow shell, release the arrow shell at some point, then you have to release the heat shield after you've gone down, after it's served its function and has kept you from burning up, you've got to get rid of it. There were different events for the air bags. There were events for the deployment where we had, you know, we had the tether which basically got deployed out, and you had to cut that. Pyro is basically is what is used to initiate the cutter which will cut that. So there's hundreds of these, and in six minutes, everything has to happen lockstep exactly right, perfectly, correctly."

Boyles (Michael says his name wrong here) is moving on to another interplanetary project for NASA, the Juno probe and the mission to the planet Jupiter.

You can learn more about Oklahoma's direct involvement in various space missions by visiting the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.