7 min­utes of tri­umph

The Covington News - - The second opinion -

Here’s my first ad­mis­sion: I’m a geek. In school, I was the book­ish girl who kept her head down dur­ing class and barely talked with other students. A bit of a nerd, geek or what­ever other slang word would fit at the time. A vo­ra­cious reader, I spent most lunch hours dur­ing my eighth-grade year read­ing in the li­brary. It was eas­ier to go there than it was to en­dure the process of try­ing to find some­one to sit with in the cafe­te­ria.

I come from a long line of geeks. My mother Jackie Gin­grich, had grad­u­ated from Auburn Univer­sity in the 1950s with a math de­gree in less than three years. More of­ten than not, she had been the only fe­male in her math classes. My fa­ther Newt Gin­grich, topped the list for Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can’s big­gest geek in the Repub­li­can pri­mary.

There­fore, I have some affin­ity for the char­ac­ters on “The Big Bang The­ory,” a com­edy about Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (CalTech). I love watch­ing the geeks win. This week they won big. On Aug. 6, at 1:31 a.m. EDT, while most of Amer­ica was sleep­ing, dozens of peo­ple at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab, JPL, in Pasadena, Calif., were cheer­ing in cele- bra­tion of a long-an­tic­i­pated vic­tory: the suc­cess­ful en­try, de­scent and land­ing — EDL — of the rover “Cu­rios­ity” at Gale Crater on Mars. There were high-fives, hugs and even tears shed by those who had poured their hearts, souls and dreams into the morethan-eight-year project.

Af­ter guid­ing the rover from its launch last Nov. 26 from Cape Canaveral in Florida across 352-mil­lion miles of space over 36 weeks, the JPL team had to wait 14 min­utes more be­fore it learned of Cu­rios­ity’s suc­cess. It takes a while for trans­mis­sion from Mars to Earth.

This is an enor­mous vic­tory for JPL and the NASA team. If you’ve ever been in­trigued by space, trans­form­ers or pow­ered flight, the en­try video is a must-see. While mil­lions of peo­ple have spent much of this week talk­ing about and watch­ing the Olympic ath­letes’ gym- nas­tic rou­tines in Lon­don, they should also be talk­ing about the plan­ning, track­ing and ex­e­cu­tion of the EDL.

EDL, dubbed the seven min­utes of ter­ror by JPL prior to the land­ing, was a rou­tine that high­lighted the spec­tac­u­lar plan­ning and math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions con­tained in the more than 500,000 lines of code that con­trolled the process. Dur­ing those seven min­utes, the craft slowed from 13,000 mph to land with pre­ci­sion con­trol.

Like some fu­tur­is­tic vi­sion, EDL in­cluded six con­fig­u­ra­tions of the craft, 76 py­rotech­nic de­vices and a para­chute 160 feet long and 52 feet in di­am­e­ter that was at­tached by 800 sus­pen­sion lines.

Af­ter a guided en­try into Mars’ at­mos­phere, the space­craft used the para­chute to slow its de­scent, fol­lowed by the fir­ing of retro­rock­ets to slow it even more. EDL ended with the craft break­ing into two pieces; a sky crane on the top piece used a tether to lower the rover onto the sur­face of Mars. It was the first time that this idea had been used for a space land­ing.

Sounds in­cred­i­ble — and it was.

Af­ter the suc­cess­ful land­ing, the seven min­utes of ter­ror was re­named the seven min­utes of tri­umph.

Dur­ing its 98-week (that’s one Mar­tian year) mis­sion, Cu­rios­ity is expected not only to col­lect sam­ples, but to also test the sam­ples in its in­ter­nal lab and then send what­ever data it finds back to Earth.

This week’s space tri­umph marks the cul­mi­na­tion of an ef­fort that be­gan in 2004, when NASA called for pro­pos­als on the rover's sci­en­tific in­stru­ments. Ac­cord­ing to the JPL web­site, the sci­en­tific goal of the mis­sion is to “ex­plore and quan­ti­ta­tively as­sess a lo­cal re­gion on Mars’ sur­face as a po­ten­tial habi­tat for life, past or present.”

OK, so here is my sec­ond ad­mis­sion: yes, I know that not ev­ery­one in­volved in the JPL / NASA project is a geek, but I still love the idea of geeks win­ning. For ev­ery­one who is in­trigued by space, by ex­plo­ration and by py­rotech­nic de­vices, this is a big win and a rea­son to cheer WHOOP, WHOOP!

To find out more about Jackie Gin­grich Cush­man, and read fea­tures by other Creators Syn­di­cate writ­ers and car­toon­ists, visit creators.com.

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