WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — When NASA's unmanned rover lands on Mars, a Wichita engineer will be part of the crew monitoring the historic mission.
The rover, named Curiosity, has been projected to land on Mars early Monday to begin a nearly two-year expedition aimed at figuring out if Mars can or could harbor life. The mission is the most advanced attempt at exploring Mars and took NASA seven years and $2.5 billion to prepare.
Propulsion engineer Todd Barber of Wichita has worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 1990, and describes himself as a remote "space plumber." His work so far with Curiosity has involved checking the pressure and temperature in the module's propulsion system, its thrusters, and tanks and heaters while the rover spent the last nine months cruising to Mars.
A successful landing is important for the team's morale, he told The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/ODKkeF ).
"When we have lost robots they sent in grief counselors," Barber said. "You work with them so much (that) sometimes you see them more than your families. They all have quirky personalities and their own individuality."
The nuclear-powered rover weighs 2,000 pounds and is about the size of a car, and incorporates the most ambitious set of scientific tools ever sent to Mars. It is the first mobile laboratory on another planet that can perform not only geology tests but also chemical analyses.
NASA engineers refer to the seven minutes in which Curiosity is projected to travel from the top of the Mars atmosphere to its surface as the "entry-descent-landing" stage, or the "seven minutes of terror." Barber will be monitoring Curiosity's landing from his post at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
He said every landing mission is an intense experience.
"And then, assuming everything works, there's just no better feeling in the world," he said. "The relief that all the years of work and all the people that have put their heart and souls into it is paying off in this one moment."
Two Wichita channels will carry NASA TV live during the Curiosity event, which means Barber's friends and family in Wichita will be able to view Barber watching Curiosity.
Barber, who graduated from Wichita's Southeast High School in 1984, received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was hired by NASA when he graduated.
He has given speeches at his former high school, hoping to encourage other kids to follow in his path. He was home recently for his grandmother's 100th birthday celebration in western Kansas.
"Between that and hopefully sticking a landing on Mars," he said, "I think this will be a summer I'll never forget."
Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.kansas.com