At mission control, what had been projected as “seven minutes of terror” was actually a bit of an understatement, a Cal Poly graduate said, after he and his fellow NASA team members nervously monitored a robotic lander’s nail-biting descent to Mars.
“That last hour leading up to the landing was nerve-wracking,” said Tim Weise (AERO, ’94 BS; ’97 MS), a deputy mission manager for the project. “Reviewing the data from the spacecraft, reviewing the procedure, making sure everything was just so, and knowing that there was no time to fix anything.”
The touchdown of the lander, known as InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), captivated audiences worldwide and marked a significant step in a renewed era of space exploration – a period of high-profile space endeavors that will feature multiple Cal Poly alumni.
NASA’s InSight lander, which took this image of Mars, will help scientists study the interior of the Red Planet. (Photo/NASA)
InSight is especially interesting because it will study the interior of Mars and, NASA says, will provide valuable science as it prepares to send astronauts to the moon and eventually the Red Planet. While recent space missions have inspired youngsters and adults, Weise had no plans to be involved in the space industry when he was younger.
“Growing up, I was always interested in planes,” said Weise, who is from San Juan Capistrano and now lives near Northridge. “My dad was an airline pilot, and my mom flew gliders briefly in her late teens, so I guess it was in my genes!”
During an on-campus interview with Hughes Space & Communications, the interviewer saw Weise’s master’s thesis – which involved building and programming a control system/stabilization system for a radio-controlled helicopter – and told Weise his work was similar to what he might do at Hughes.
“That led to my first job doing flight software for satellites,” he said.
After working at Hughes for five years, he joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where he eventually became part of the Dawn mission, which explored the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt, called Vesta and Ceres. As the engineering team lead, Weise was responsible for forming the engineering team made up of systems engineers and subsystem engineers who would cover all of the spacecraft’s subsystems.
“This team was responsible for operating the spacecraft safely,” he said. “Reviewing the telemetry data, building, testing, and reviewing the sequences of commands that control the spacecraft to meeting its mission objectives.”
This artist’s illustration shows NASA’s InSight lander on the surface of Mars, with its solar arrays deployed. (Image: NASA)
As the mission continued, Weise took on greater roles, eventually becoming mission manager. In that role, he was responsible for the overall mission success, providing oversight of all of the operations teams as well as being the final sign-off on command sequences being sent to the spacecraft.
As deputy mission manager of InSight, he helps ensure that all of the flight teams, as well as the ground software needed, were ready for operations.
InSight launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 5. Along for the launch were two CubeSats – or mini satellites – that were tested at Cal Poly. After an 11-month, 300-million-mile journey from Earth, InSight was ready to land near Mars’ equator this past Monday.
News of the upcoming touchdown – and the hazards involved – created a buzz, fueled by the projections that the landing would represent “seven minutes of terror” with a devastating crash being a real possibility. Stories about upcoming missions sending Americans back into space – involving Cal Poly graduates Victor Glover, an astronaut, and United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno – also added to the intrigue, as space exploration makes a dramatic comeback.
“Other missions that I’ve worked on have not had such widespread public engagement, so it is really amazing to see how excited people all over the country, and even the world, get for something that I’m working on,” Weise said. “It is very humbling to be a part of such a historic event.”
After working through the holiday weekend, Weise arrived at the Jet Propulsion Lab at 6 a.m. to complete the final steps of the procedure – taking advantage of one last opportunity to tweak some of the values in the entry, descent and landing algorithms based on the latest navigation data. Two hours prior to the landing, he was in mission control, wearing the maroon shirt the team was seen wearing on live streams across the nation.
There were no cameras on Mars to record the landing live. So the team had to listen for signals, which came in 8-minute delays.
“During the landing, there were expected data drop outs, and the room got so quiet, you could hear a pin drop,” Weise said. “Then we’d get a data point to confirm the next step, and the team would erupt in applause.”
Applause followed when the team learned InSight’s parachute deployed and again when it locked onto the ground with radar. As members of the team stared at their computer consoles, a flight controller announced altitude measurements over an intercom – and the real tension began.
Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager for NASA JPL, left, and Sue Smrekar, InSight’s deputy principal investigator, react after receiving confirmation that the Mars InSight lander had successfully touched down on the surface of Mars on Nov. 26. (Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA)
The time between “17 meters” and “touchdown confirmed” seemed like an eternity, Weise said.
Those in mission control – and across the country, including those who watched it at Times Square –held their breaths as InSight’s status was announced:
“Touchdown confirmed!” a voice announced. “InSight is on the surface of Mars!”
After six and a half minutes of sweaty palms and held breath, the lander was on the Red Planet and ready to work.
“Finally, when that first image came down, showing the lander’s new home and to see the surface of another planet that no one has seen before, I was just awestruck,” Weise said. “It was an amazing experience – I really don’t have the words to describe it adequately.”