Eight years of intense engineering came down to seven minutes of terror as a $2.5 billion project rocketed toward the surface of Mars, on a mission to gather evidence, if any, that life once existed on the red planet.
With nerves on edge, Darien native Fred Serricchio stood in the control room at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in southern California, anxiously waiting for the moment when it could be confirmed that the rover, Curiosity, either landed safely or crashed into the cold Martian surface.
“The thing about the last day is it’s a huge emotional change, either in a positive or negative way,” Serricchio told The Times, as he drove through New Mexico with his wife and two children, returning home from a much-needed break after working on the Curiosity rover project for much of the last decade. “It could either be a success or incredible failure. One small thing can go wrong and the mission is over. Then we’re left to just find out what went wrong.”
Five hours before Curiosity began its descent, NASA’s ability to control the spacecraft essentially ended, Serricchio said, leaving it up to software created by Serricchio and his team to accurately guide the rover to a safe landing. “It has to do it all on its own,” he said of the last leg of the trip, known as Entry Descent Landing.
Curiosity entered the Mars atmosphere at 13,000 mph — or 14 times the speed of sound. That’s when the infamous “seven minutes of terror” began, which relates to the time it takes from entry to landing.
Small rockets slow the craft to 1,000 mph as the heat shield reaches 1,600 degrees during entry into the thin Martian atmosphere. A parachute soon deploys, and the heat shield drops off, revealing Curiosity in the craft’s belly. It then has to drop its chute and initiate rockets to stabilize its descent.
With engines blazing, the sky crane hovers above the dusty terrain, lowering the 1,980-pound, six-wheeled scientific machine to the surface with steel cables. When Curiosity hits the ground, the sky crane waits 1.5 seconds before severing the cables and then flying off to crash land.
It all went off without a hitch. The control room went berserk in celebration.
“Everyone was sharing in that moment,” Serricchio said. “That’s the beauty of this project. It’s 3,000 people striving for one common goal. Everyone’s part had to work for the whole thing to work.”
Curiosity is the largest rover to land on Mars — more than four times heavier than previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Previous landings involved covering the rover in giant balloons and dropping it to the surface, letting it bounce around until it stabilized. Curiosity’s descent was the first attempt of its kind.
The rover represented 23% of the total weight of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, which launched in November last year. The Aug. 6 touchdown marked the beginning of a new era of space exploration, Serricchio said.
“To be able to answer one of the oldest questions, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ Maybe no, we’re not,” Serricchio said. “Any scientific discovery like that would cause a huge amount of support” for future space exploration.
Serricchio’s love of science bloomed at Darien High School when his AP calculus teacher suggested he look into becoming an engineer.
“In high school, I was far better at math and science than I was at social studies,” he remembered. He later earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before getting his master’s at the California Institute of Technology. Since graduating, he’s been on NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory team in Pasadena, Calif.
“The chance to do one-of-a-kind, exploration-type things, that really interested me,” Serricchio said. His parents, Fred and Lesley, still live in town, and his father said he is quite proud of his son’s accomplishments.
“I’m proud of him and everybody that’s involved in that program,” his father said. “When I visited [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory], everybody he worked with has this team spirit. The camaraderie was very evident and very strong.”
When Serricchio was a kid, “he was always one step ahead of me and his mother,” Fred Sr. said. “That’s the kind of kid he was.”
When his family would go for a ride, Serricchio would want to hit the books. “He liked sports, but he was always on course to go someplace,” Fred Sr. said. “I didn’t know where, but he did.”
He declined a scholarship to Hartford University to attend Rensselaer, a decision that, at the time, made his dad a bit uneasy. “In the end it worked out well for him,” Fred Sr. said.
Serricchio also credited his cross country and track coaches, Del Mautte and Steve Norris, for helping him to appreciate the value of diversifying one’s skills beyond the academic setting.
“DHS is a good place,” Serricchio said. “The striving for achievement is always there, but you have to be a little more well-rounded” to truly make your mark.
He also worked on the previous Mars rovers, one of which is still operating today, exceeding its life expectancy by more than 3,000%. And with the Curiosity landing under his belt, Serricchio has three successful Mars landings to be proud of.
When Curiosity landed safely, Serricchio’s dad sent him a text message congratulating him and his team on a job well done. “He was very busy that night in the control room,” his father said.
But now is no time to rest on one’s laurels — while NASA has steadily reduced manned projects to space, Serricchio said he would like to one day find himself among the stars.
“They’re still taking astronaut applications,” Serricchio said. “I might have to apply. They usually require PhDs for non-military astronauts, but who knows. Maybe this experience will give me an extra leg up.”
Serricchio also worked on Curiosity’s cruise-phase software, which helped guide the craft during its 350 million-mile journey.
“During the cruise phase of the mission we use a sun sensor and a star scanner to figure out which way we are pointed,” Serricchio said. “I kind of like the idea that we use the sun and the stars for navigation for planetary exploration, just like the sailors of long ago.”
“We also use thrusters to turn the spacecraft to keep the solar panels toward the sun and to keep the antenna pointed toward the Earth,” he said. “Since both the Earth and Mars are in orbit around the sun, and the spacecraft is in a trajectory toward Mars, we continually need to make adjustments to our attitude along the way.”
Serricchio’s title was senior attitude control system engineer; ‘attitude’ meaning the direction the spacecraft was heading as it spiraled in circles toward Earth’s neighboring planet. Whenever they steered the craft, it was called an “attitude adjustment.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing during the eight-month journey. “The first 10 days, everything was going pretty perfect,” Serricchio recalled. That turned out to be the calm before the storm.
A hardware malfunction caused computer software to prematurely read information before it was written completely, causing the ground team to stop navigating from the stars and begin using the Earth’s angle to navigate.
It took his team two or three weeks to figure out the problem, test solutions from the ground, and upload the software fixes. If they had continued to navigate without the stars, they could have missed their landing target.
“It definitely put the pressure on to figure out what happened,” Serricchio said. After the fix was in, it was smooth sailing.
While Curiosity wanders Mars’ Gale Crater, it will gather minerals and soil samples to examine evidence of past microbial life and to learn more about Mars’ history and geological formations. Orbital observations identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history, NASA officials said.
The rover is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which is essentially a miniature nuclear reactor fueled by 11 pounds of plutonium, created by Boeing and Idaho National Laboratory. Some of Curiosity’s tools, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks’ elemental composition, are the first of its kind on Mars. The mission is expected to last two Earth years, but the rover has enough to juice to make it last four, Serricchio said.
“Over the past three decades, spacecraft have shown us that Mars is rocky, cold, and sterile beneath its hazy, pink sky,” states NASA’s website. “We’ve discovered that today’s Martian wasteland hints at a formerly volatile world where volcanoes once raged, meteors plowed deep craters, and flash floods rushed over the land. And Mars continues to throw out new enticements with each landing or orbital pass made by our spacecraft.”
When he’s not working long hours developing complex software programs for space missions, Serricchio enjoys working out and running. He also instructs a full-contact self-defense class where he dons a protective suit and acts like an attacker as his students try to subdue him with various techniques.
If he does get a chance to one day shake hands with outer space, it would mean that humanity would be one step farther along in its quest for understanding the cosmos.
The space program, Serricchio said, “It’s to really get a sense of exploration across the country and across the world.”
“We should explore Mars more, and get the public behind it.”