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“It’s just mind-boggling to me,” said Miguel San Martin, chief engineer for the landing team.

Curiosity is the heaviest piece of machinery NASA has landed on Mars, and the success gave the space agency confidence that it can unload equipment that astronauts may need in a future manned trip to the red planet.

The landing technique was hatched in 1999 in the wake of devastating back-to-back Mars spacecraft losses. Back then, engineers had no clue how to land super-heavy spacecraft. They brainstormed different possibilities, consulting Apollo-era engineers and pilots of heavy-lift helicopters.

“I think its engineering at its finest. What engineers do is they make the impossible possible,” said former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun. “This thing is elegant. People say it looks crazy. Each system was designed for a very specific function.”

Because of budget constraints, NASA canceled its joint U.S.-European missions to Mars, scheduled for 2016 and 2018.

“When’s the next lander on Mars? The answer to that is nobody knows,” Bolden said in an interview with The Associated Press recently.

But if Curiosity finds something interesting, he said, it could spur the public and Congress to provide more money for more Martian exploration. No matter what, he said, Curiosity’s mission will help NASA as it tries to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s.

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Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vUcGMDXy-Y1I&featureyoutu.be

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Borenstein reported from Washington. Follow Alicia Chang’s Mars coverage at: http://www.twitter.com/SciWriAlicia