- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2012

The rover Curiosity’s safe landing on Martian soil sparked a wave of interest Monday from space enthusiasts and casual observers who stopped for project updates at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

In an exhibit hall surrounded by artifacts from past space missions, local residents interested in the rover coverage gathered with visitors eager to keep up with the news, and at least one science fan who took off work to recognize the accomplishment.

“Something like this is just very rare,” said John Laughlin, a 54-year-old graphic designer from Germantown. “Anybody who grew up with the space program, this is in their DNA.”

While much of the country slept, the nearly one-ton probe completed its eight-month journey to the Red Planet, plummeting to the surface with the help of a parachute and cable deployment during what’s widely been referred to as “seven minutes of terror” for the project’s team members.

Roger Launius, senior curator at the museum, said 26 of the 40 missions to Mars have been failures, so “any time you land on another planet, it’s a fascinating thing to watch.”

“Those missions are the hardest things to do. It’s easy to crash into something, but it’s much harder to successfully reach it safely,” he said.

Inside the exhibit hall, people stood in front of a large video screen showing early images taken from the rover. A grainy black-and-white image from a separate Mars orbiter elicited cheers and applause, as the fully deployed parachute could be seen with Curiosity dangling below it.

“My parents both worked in aerospace at the time of the moon landing,” said Rachel Owens, 59, an Irvine, Calif., resident. “We really like this stuff, but people take it for granted.”

The landing comes months after D.C.-area residents were captivated by another NASA project. In April, the arrival of the space shuttle Discovery stopped much of the city in its tracks, as people flocked to rooftops to catch a glimpse of the shuttle piggybacked on a 747 jet as it made its final stop at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly.

“This is much more phenomenal, much more important than bringing a used shuttle to a Smithsonian museum,” said Jim Kalleberg, 60, of Laurel. With Curiosity grounded near the base of a three-mile-high mountain, the rover team on Earth can start directing the machine to take photographs of the surrounding terrain and looking for any soil evidence that could point to signs of life.

The idea of life on Mars — or at least the building blocks of life — adds to the pop-culture myths about the Red Planet, but Mr. Launius said “that’s not craziness, but real scientists suggesting ways in which this world works.”

“It’s justifiably really exciting,” Mr. Launius said. “Are we alone in the universe? Can we learn the answer to that?”

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