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Touchdown on Mars

NASA engineer’s passion for science and innovation shine in viral video as Perseverance Rover makes its landing.

It started as nothing more than a video to share with family and a few close friends—a chance for people to see what it’s like for a NASA engineer to watch the Perseverance Rover begin its final descent towards Mars.

As Susan and Miguel San Martin '82 sat in their home office in Southern California, Susan began recording as her husband, an advisor and consultant for the mission, watched the telemetry data arriving from Perseverance.  

“I started recording in our office about nine minutes before touchdown, and I saw the tension building up,” Susan says.

Miguel graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and was the Engineering Student of the Year in 1982. His success and the strength of Syracuse’s program set him up for acceptance to a graduate program at MIT. After earning a master’s, he began working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—a longtime dream of Miguel’s from his childhood in Argentina.

In the past—when Miguel was the chief engineer for the guidance, navigation and control systems of the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rover missions—the family watched this process from NASA’s JPL, the California Institute of Technology, or Pasadena, California. For Perseverance, though, they were able to watch from the comfort of their own home.

The Perseverance landing carried extra stress for Miguel. The landing software and sky-crane he helped design for Curiosity were being used again for Perseverance, and he wanted to know that the successful Curiosity mission was not a fluke.

“I could see the landing one step at a time, and I just held my breath,” Miguel says.

Seven Minutes of Terror

Miguel San Martin stands next to Mars rover.
Miguel San Martin stands with a full-scale mock-up of the Curiosity Mars rover.

Safely landing a rover on Mars is incredibly difficult. It takes coordination from colleagues in nearly every engineering and computer science discipline and requires thousands of interconnected steps to be executed perfectly. In a presentation at the College of Engineering and Computer Science in 2019, Miguel described the process of landing as “ seven minutes of terror .”

“The terror starts to build up when the vehicle arrives in the top layers of the Mars atmosphere, traveling at speeds of 13,000 miles per hour. In just seven minutes, the goal is for the Rover to be on the surface of Mars in one piece and operating,” Miguel says.

In those seven minutes, the vehicle goes through three phases of reducing its velocity. First, heat shields help protect the delicate instruments during atmospheric entry. Then, a supersonic parachute opens. Since the vehicle is still falling towards the surface of Mars at 200 miles per hour, the parachute is cut loose, and thrusters slow the vehicle down. Before touchdown, a sky-crane separates from the rover and helps it land on its wheels.

“There are a million little details—if just one of them does not perform just right, it can end in disaster. There is no partial credit for landing on Mars,” Miguel says. “It doesn’t matter if you did it before and you were successful. A mistake can cost the mission.”

A Celebration of Victory

Susan kept recording as each step in the landing was a success. Even when the telemetry data showed that the rover had touched down, Miguel and the team in the control room waited fifteen seconds to be sure everything was working properly.

After the landing was confirmed, Susan’s video captured Miguel jumping out of seat, cheering and crying tears of joy. “It was tremendous relief and happiness. Prior to the landing, I was very nervous,” Miguel says.

The video perfectly captures Miguel’s passion for science, engineering and innovation, and Susan says nothing in his reaction is exaggerated. “He would react the exactly the same way if Argentina were to score a goal against Germany in the World Cup.”

After opening a bottle of champagne and celebrating the successful landing together, Susan sent the nine-minute video to their daughter to edit. When she got the finished version back, Susan posted it on Facebook and assumed that would be the end of things.

Familial Joy Gone Viral

Their daughter called back the next day with a confession: She had posted the video on TikTok.

Within 24 hours, the video had almost 1.5 million views across social media platforms. Just a few days later, the video of Miguel celebrating had more than three million views and had been played on NBC’s Today Show and on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert .

They are still in awe of how far their video has gone and how many people have seen it. “At some point, you look at those shows, and it is you, but it is not you. It is an out of body experience,” Miguel says.

“It just grew and grew and grew,” Susan says. “After the year we have had, this brought joy to people.” In the time since the video was posted, they have heard from individuals around the world who were inspired by it. “It is also a powerful message to immigrants. Follow a dream, and you can get it.”

Alex Dunbar

This story was published on .


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