The silence felt like it would match the silence Mars Science laboratory had experienced over the last 8 months.
London is rarely quiet but waiting for a bus to appear in the early morning gloom of 4.30am is about as silent as it gets.
The empty tube train was positively eerie as it rattled through West London, picking up the random people who have need to catch a train before dawn, even in the summer. We quietly slide into South Kensington, devoid of screaming, dinosaur hungry children and frazzled parents looking for their next coffee.
Almost 155,000,000 miles away Curiosity slowly falls into the gravity well of the Red Planet. Less than an hour from a plunge to death or glory.
Along the flanks of Exhibition Road sit silently the secular temples to science and culture. On the left the Victoria and Albert Museum, on the right the Science Museum, in the distance before reaching Hyde Park; Imperial College, the Royal College of Music and the Albert Hall.
But before them all, Waterhouse’s glory: The Natural History Museum. Perhaps the most beautiful building in London and certainly a place that inspires thousands everyday who pass through it’s Romanesque arched door. Today though, it was a small group of 200 sleep deprived space enthusiasts and journalists who were slipping through a side door to witness and share in a small moment of history.
Crammed into the Flett theatre, we watched and listened. Animations of Earth’s emissary to Gale Crater gave us a flavour of what we were hearing from mission control. An assembled panel of experts; Dr Peter Grindrod (UCL), Dr Joseph Michalski (NHM), Dr Matthew Balme (OU) and Dr Ralph Cordey (Astrium), attempted to explain the details and answer our questions. The cameras clicked, the journalists muttered softly into their microphones and we held our breath.
7 minutes. But it was already there. The time delay of a message from Mars is just shy of 15 minutes so while we listened, Curiosity was either sitting triumphant on the surface or lying smashed. It was a truth left unspoken.
The plunge into the atmosphere, the heat-shield falling away, the parachute deployment at almost twice the speed of sound. The greatest engineering achievement was beyond human control and in the hands of it’s computers programmed many months ago. Would the Skycrane work?
Skycrane. Afterwards, Michalski told me that when it was proposed by the landing engineers the reaction was unrepeatable. An engineer from Astrium working on ESA’s Exomars told me that it was so mad it had to work. As Curiosity neared the ground it would fall away from the parachute, fire rockets and then the vehicle would be lowered to the Martian surface on cables. Then the rockets would be throttled up and the crane crashed away from the rover. If it was going to go wrong surely this was the moment.
We waited. There was a connection with the orbiting Oddessy Space Craft, but no data.
The pictures spoke for themselves. The cheers at JPL and the relived applause in our small, hot tense room in London broke the wall of emotion.
Humankind’s spirit of adventure and exploration, our need to know and understand, our want to go beyond the next horizon had succeeded.
Curiosity was on Mars.
Thanks to everyone at the Natural History Museum, London and congratulations to NASA/JPL.
More pictures of NHM London’s event available here via Phillip Stobbart