Many scientists working to send the rover Curiosity on a two-year mission to study the planet's atmosphere have roots in the state.
The lights in Heidi Manning's home in Moorhead, Minn., will be on into the wee hours Monday as she boots up her computer and tunes in to the latest news report on NASA's most advanced rover landing on the red planet.
Sure, she's a self-proclaimed science nerd, but Manning's role in equipping the rover for its trip to Mars better explains her fascination.
The Mars Science Lab has waited 10 years, spent $2.5 billion and involved more than 5,000 people in the project -- a handful of whom are current or former Minnesotans. They had a hand in developing technology, testing and doing research for the rover Curiosity.
The two-year mission aims to assess if Mars' atmosphere can sustain life. The rover is equipped with tools, making it a chemist and detective that can sniff the air to understand its composition, drill, maneuver and analyze particles, said Steve Lee, control systems manager for NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
Lee led the team that controlled the spacecraft's orientation and flight. He grew up in Golden Valley and was captivated by space after the 1969 moon landing occurred on his seventh birthday.
"If you want to inspire a kid to get into the space program, then land on the moon on his birthday," said Lee. Going to Neil Armstrong High School in Plymouth added to his excitement, he said. "I never had the 'what do you want to be when you grow up' dilemma."
Midwest 'voice of NASA'
Manning's path to NASA was a little different. Now a physics professor at Concordia College, Manning worked on the space shuttle project in 1990 as part of her graduate work at the University of Minnesota, and from 1995 to 1997 she worked on an instrument that is now orbiting Saturn.
In the summer of 2006, she helped develop Curiosity's SAM instrument, a sophisticated on-board chemistry lab that can identify chemicals on Mars. She's proud to be a Midwestern "voice of NASA," debunking the thought that all NASA people are in Florida or Texas.
"I think it's great to have people from all over the country a part of this," said Manning, who grew up in Virginia, Minn.
But the rover has to land safely before it can explore.
"If it can't land, no part of the mission happens," said Mike Holtz, who grew up in Crosby, Minn., and is a lead operations engineer at Dryden, NASA's flight research center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Holtz graduated from the U with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering, but he never thought his work would go to another planet.
After being on active duty with the Air Force until 2007, Holtz saw an opening at Dryden and soon found himself testing software and flying a F-18 that mimicked landing patterns for the rover. "It's pretty amazing to think about growing up in a little town of 2,000 people in the middle of Minnesota and then ending up out here in California," said Holtz, calling Dryden the "Mecca of flight testing."
"It's quite amazing to see that connection from where you start to where you are now," he said.
'A lot is riding on this'
Ben Thoma, a St. Paul native, started out as an intern at NASA and then landed a full-time job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab where he worked on landing the twin rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- on Mars in 2004.
For Curiosity, Thoma oversaw a team that engineered the descent stage and was in charge of making sure the pieces of the rover were put together and worked in harmony -- crucial when the spacecraft is hurtling to the Martian surface in a landing that will go from 13,000 miles per hour to under 2 mph in seven minutes. "It's very nail-biting," said Thoma. "A lot is riding on this and these are extremely complex machines where hundreds of thousands of things have to go right."
Landing on Mars is a challenge. The success rate is about 50 percent. But Lee said the NASA has faith in its work and the spacecraft.
Trusting their work is all Thoma and Holtz can do at this point. As engineers, their work is done.
But for Lee, another phase of work is just beginning. He and others at NASA will shift their work hours to "Mars time," syncing up with the rover to prepare for its exploration.
For Manning, taking a yearlong sabbatical from teaching at Concordia to monitor the SAM instrument is an extension of her job as an educator. "In a sense, it's a mission to educate the public about what NASA's doing," she said. "I've enjoyed that aspect and being able to share that with the people of Minnesota."
Asha Anchan • 612-673-4154