Lifelong "space geek" Brad Snowder was born the year the Soviet satellite Sputnik launched the Space Race, but he was too young to celebrate the ensuing first U.S. satellite success.
Fifty-five years later, the Bellingham resident finds himself with an unexpected opportunity to come full circle and, he hopes, be part of a wild celebration with fellow scientists.
Snowder is the only Washington state resident among 25 space enthusiasts chosen to join NASA scientists at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to monitor the Mars landing of the rover Curiosity the night of Sunday, Aug. 5.
Snowder, who has served as planetarium director at Western Washington University for 17 years, also teaches astronomy at Western and at Whatcom Community College. As part of a program called "NASA Social," he and the others will use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to express their evaluations and emotions about the Mars landing.
Question: Brad, how did you land this opportunity?
Answer: I was among many to apply online. When I received the announcement recently, I was really in shock. It's definitely one of those bucket list items.
This Mars landing is so historic, by far the most complicated landing ever attempted.
Q: How long will you be at the Pasadena laboratory?
A: We'll begin a program of seminars and training for three days beginning Aug. 3. The landing is scheduled at 10:31 p.m. (Pacific time) on Aug. 5. I'm due to fly out the next day. The actual science won't be under way until later in the week.
Q: Why do you call the landing process "seven minutes of terror?"
A: Because it's the most complicated EDL (entry, descent and landing) ever attempted. Because of the differences in Mars' lesser gravity and much thinner atmosphere, this process could not be tested on Earth.
Q: What makes it so complex?
A: First, the rover will approach (at thousands of miles per hour) and brake to zero mph in seven minutes. Then comes a parachute, then retro-rockets that will keep the rover a few meters above the surface.
Curiosity will be lowered with a cable known as a sky crane, so it's a very soft touchdown. All this has never been tried. Previous rovers have been much smaller and were landed with inflatable devices.
Q: They can't change the landing date, right?
A: It's not like a launch. Isaac Newton (the discoverer of gravity) will be taking care of this, landing at 10:31 p.m.
Q: How soon will you know if the landing works?
A: Since Mars will be 154 million miles from Earth (its closest approach is 35 million miles), it will take about 14 minutes (at the speed of light) for us to receive the first indications whether the landing is successful.
Q: Will you stay up into the wee hours for the first transmissions from Mars?
A: I would imagine so, since I'll be pretty pumped. It may take several hours. The first test drive of the rover won't begin until the fifth day on Mars. I'll be back home, but I'll continue to send out my thoughts on everything that's happening. That's part of our job.
Q: Will the rover find life?
A: Curiosity will land in the Gale Crater, where there are billions of years of outcroppings, like the Grand Canyon. It's thought that Mars and Earth were very similar in the first half-billion years of their existence, and we know there was microbial life on Earth that early.
Curiosity will look for evidence in the geological striations of such life in the past on Mars. Since in recent decades we have discovered life in the most outrageous conditions on Earth, it is possible such primitive life could still exist on Mars.
Q: Are you emotionally prepared for a failure?
A: Our job will be to create a buzz through social media about what's going on ... but a failure would not be anything like the explosions of the Challenger shuttle in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.
Q: Would you like to see a manned landing on Mars?
A: Sure, but the real future of space exploration and gaining knowledge is robotic. But both men and robots would be the most preferable situation for Mars.
I would like to see manned space exploration continue, but not at the expense of science. I'm on the side of gaining knowledge more than adventure, so I've been more interested in the Hubble telescope than the space shuttle.
Did you know this Mars landing program will cost each American an average of 40 cents a year - less than a Mars candy bar!
WATCH REPORT ON NASA's "7 MINUTES OF TERROR"
SOURCE: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology
FOLLOW THE MARS LANDING
To read Brad Snowder's Facebook entries about the Mars landing, use the link at planetarium.wwu.edu.
MICHELLE NOLAN is a Bellingham freelance writer.