On Sunday (Aug. 5), Jim Meyer was waiting with bated breath for the “seven minutes of terror.”
At approximately 10:30 p.m., the project the former National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) employee watched shoot into space reached its destination — Mars.
The Curiosity is NASA's biggest and heaviest rover ever sent to the rocky planet. Meyer worked on NASA's five previous rover expeditions, including Spirit and Opportunity. Having successfully landed on the planet in 2004, Opportunity is currently perched on the western rim of the Endeavour Crater and continues to send information to Earth. The Spirit stopped communicating in 2010.
But the Curiosity tops them all, Meyer said, while sitting in the living room of his Squamish summertime home. It's the size of a small SUV. During its seven-minute descent, the equipment withstood temperatures up to 1,600 degrees Celsius — more than twice as hot as lava.
To slow its speed from 20,941 kilometres per hour to zero, the Curiosity changed shape six times, a process that required 76 pyrotechnic devices. Then there's the largest supersonic parachute ever built, a 100-pound chute created to deal with 65,000 pounds of force.
All of this was monitored on a signal that came with a 14-minute delay, the time it takes to transmit data from Mars to Earth, Meyer said. To top it off, there was no margin for error.
That's why it's called the “seven minutes of terror,” Meyer said, noting the anticipation built during the $2.5 billion rover's nine-month journey to Mars. Minutes after the Curiosity landed in Gale Crater beside the 5.5-km-high Mount Sharp, it was sending pictures home.
“It is just like seeing a relative or your kid getting a home run,” Meyer said.
At the age of 24, Meyer found himself involved with the Apollo missions, starting with Apollo 7. Meyer worked on all the moon landings — six manned landings in all — and numerous unmanned missions. He also took part in the 73 moon surveys.
“They weren't really sure man could walk on the moon,” Meyer recalled.
How Meyer ended up a rocket scientist comes down to dumb luck. As a teenager, Meyer's thoughts were on the baseball field. University was the furthest thing from his mind, until his sister convinced him to attend the University of Evansville (Ind.) to study engineering.
One day a NASA recruiter came to the school. A career at the space centre made all the other job options seem like flipping burgers. Meyer was hooked. In 1966, he was a signed employee.
“I had no idea I would be able to work in a space center,” Meyer said.
A few years later, Meyer ran into the NASA recruiter. He'd always been curious as to why the guy picked Evansville as a stop. Turned out he was dating the girl who lived next door to Meyer in town.
It was an awesome career, Meyer said. Over his 37 years working as a launch operations manager for the Kennedy Space Center's unmanned missions, Meyer saw 162 rockets launch from the pads.
The missions were amazing and just keep getting better, he said, noting by 2030 NASA plans to have astronauts on Mars. What NASA is truly looking for is signs of life, Meyer said. He keeps up to date with NASA's various missions, receiving emails from co-workers and the space center's newsletter.
“It never gets old,” Meyer said.
On Saturday (Aug. 11), Meyer is hosting a presentation about the Mars rover Curiosity at the Brackendale Art Gallery. The presentation starts at 8 p.m. Admission is by donation with the proceeds going to the Squamish Streamkeepers. For more information visit www.brackendaleartgallery.com.