Seven minutes of terror. It sounds like how a deranged maniac might describe sexual intercourse. NASA scientists came to use the scary term to describe the final leg of their Curiosity rover’s 345 million mile journey.
The space agency had to perfectly land the car-sized device on a planet with little atmosphere but plenty of peril. Those seven minutes were so terrifying because the rover had to slow down from 13,000 mph to 0. These seven minutes made the difference between a $2.6 billion scientific breakthrough and a $2.6 billion paperweight (although it will be some time before paper is brought to the Red Planet).
For those that tuned into the live broadcast Sunday night on the West Coast or Monday morning on the East, the difficult landing was as suspenseful as any Olympic uneven bars routine or Gotham City terrorist attack.
Fortunately for all involved (especially those pushing for more government funding for NASA), the high-profile landing was pulled off perfectly. It was hard not to be moved by the explosive applause in the control room after news broke that the mission was a success.
The way Curiosity is being covered is different than any other past mission. Instead of broadcasting the landing on television, NASA opted to stream the whole ordeal live on their website. As expected, millions tuned in. NASA tested their streaming capability with a program called SOASTA, which could mimic web traffic as high as 25 gigabytes per second.
The agency’s streaming capabilities are as tough and well-tested as their rover.
The live-stream, which featured interviews with experts and NASA employees, went on without a hitch. In true Internet fashion, one of the control room operators has become a minor celebrity. The mohawked Bobak Ferdowski is already a meme. Tweets, paintings and a Tumblr have been dedicated to Ferdowski and his hairdo. Science isn’t usually allowed to get this cool.
Another awesome aspect of the Curiosity rover was the coverage on Twitter. The NASA handle (@NASA) live-tweeted the seven minutes of terror with the #MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) hashtag. Unless Curiosity uses AI to craft tweets, whoever tweeted for the rover (@MarsCuriosity) was a little more fun. After touchdown, they proudly tweeted “GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”
NASA also utilized Youtube strongly. An animation detailing Curiosity’s landing showed why the last seven minutes were so terrifying. Although there was a DMCA snafu early on, a 13-minute excerpt of the live-stream was uploaded to the video site for posterity.
NASA’s savvy coverage was broad, transparent and had a healthy dose of humor. Other government agencies could learn a thing or two from their example.