Crazy Smart: When A Rocker Designs A Mars Lander npr

It’s called the seven minutes of terror. In just seven minutes, NASA’s latest mission to Mars, a new six-wheeled rover called Curiosity, must go from 13,000 mph as it enters the Martian atmosphere to a dead stop on the surface.
During those seven minutes, the rover is on its own. Earth is too far away for radio signals to make it to Mars in time for ground controllers to do anything. Everything in the system known as EDL — for Entry, Descent and Landing — must work perfectly. So you won’t be surprised to learn that this is a rather nerve-wracking time for Adam Steltzner, the EDL team leader.
“The product of nine years of my life will be put to the test Sunday evening,” Steltzner told me when I visited him at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in late July. “And so that is personally anxiety provoking.”
I don’t know about you, but I tend to think of engineers as serious buttoned-down types. Steltzner is anything but.
He has pierced ears, wears snakeskin boots and sports an Elvis haircut. He’s quick to laugh and curious about everything. Steltzner’s laid-back style makes team meetings a jolly affair. I stopped by one of those meetings during my visit. The jollity was still there, but it was clear that the prelanding tension was rising.