"Everybody take a deep breath," NASA's John Connolly said from a temporary stage at Space Center Houston early Monday morning. "The seven minutes of terror starts . . . now."
The crowd of more than 1,000 Mars fanatics scrambled to their seats in the food court to watch live feeds of the control room inside the Jet Propulsion Lab at the California Institute of Technology as the Curiosity rover began its precarious descent towards the Red Planet.
John Connolly from NASA marked a new era for the U.S. space program with a single word — "touchdown" — as a miniature model of Curiosity gently dropped from the ceiling.
Minutes later, Connolly marked a new era for the U.S. space program with a single word — "touchdown." During an eruption of applause, a miniature model of Curiosity gently dropped from the ceiling as a smoke machine switched into gear. Blue lights flashed while the Kanye West song, "Spaceship," played.
For an evening family event scheduled until 2 a.m., Space Center Houston's "Seven Minutes of Terror" party was bumping with space fans ranging from first graders to octogenarian NASA retirees. There were rocks from Mars, remote-controlled rover races, LEGO contests, Martian bingo, pieces of meteorites and, not one, but two astronauts in attendance.
"There's an amazing mix of families and devoted science fans here tonight," said Ken Harms, an associate with Space Center's education department. "I'm excited to be a part of it."
But before word of the landing worked its way to major news outlets last week, some at the popular museum complex worried that widespread public misconceptions about NASA's future — mainly, that the cancelled shuttle program spelled the organization's demise — were taking a toll.
"We were only up to about 500 sold tickets a few days ago, but since Friday and Saturday sales skyrocketed," said operations leader Andrew Vargas.
"I think the Mars landing shows people that NASA's still alive," said Space Center Houston's Andrew Vargas. "The space shuttle program closed, but there's a whole new chapter up ahead."
"This is easily one of the biggest events we've had here. I think the Mars landing shows people that NASA's still alive. The space shuttle program closed, but there's a whole new chapter up ahead."
While Connolly noted that clear color images won't be available for several more days, an early test picture was beamed back to Earth showing the wheel of rover in front of a Martian horizon.
"Unfortunately, the really cool stuff won't start happening for a few more days," he reminded the audience as many in the crowd began to line up for a celebratory pancake breakfast, compliments of McDonalds.
Throughout the week, researchers at the California Institute of Technology will assess the condition of the one-ton rover after its nine-month journey from Cape Canaveral.
Once cleared by technicians, Curiosity will make its way across the arid landscape looking for signs of life that may have existed when the planet was warmer and maintained a degree of water.