The NASA robot dubbed "Curiosity" landed safely on Mars Sunday night smack dab in the middle of a deep pit of quicksand and sunk before any useful data could be collected.
Curiosity, the largest and most advanced spacecraft ever sent to another planet, literally "stuck" its extraordinary landing Sunday night in triumphant and flawless fashion, and was poised to begin its pioneering, two-year hunt for the building blocks of life - signs that Earth's creatures may not be not alone in the universe. The only problem was the landing spot where it "stuck" was quicksand, which immediately sunk the craft.
NASA's $2.5-billion mission involved the work of more than 5,000 people from 37 states, some of whom had labored for 10 years to hear the two words that a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer said inside mission control at 10:32 p.m.: "Touchdown confirmed."
"The last thing we wanted to hear after 'Touchdown confirmed' was 'in quicksand', but that's what happened," said a NASA insider.
Curiosity's size required engineers to devise an entirely new landing sequence. Thousands of carefully calibrated and experimental devices -- which could never be tested on Earth because Mars' atmosphere is so different - had to work in precise lockstep for the spacecraft to survive.
The landing sequence, which NASA had dubbed "seven minutes of terror," required the largest supersonic parachute ever deployed in space, a perilous-looking "sky crane" and 76 pyrotechnic explosions. If any one of those "pyros" had not occurred, "we go bye bye," said the leader of the landing team. Officials had spent much of the day Sunday speculating about how Curiosity might fail, and what the consequences might be for America's space program.
"I was really on pins and needles," said a NASA Administrator. "And everything worked flawlessly until the craft sank into quicksand."
The primary mission was expected to last for at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth days, but instead lasted less than one minute - the time it took for the craft to completely submerge in quicksand.
For five years, space scientists made impassioned arguments for their favored landing site.
Last summer, from a pool of 60 candidates, NASA decided to send Curiosity to its landing spot, which turned out to be quicksand, an ancient geological feature just south of the equator.
Curiosity's principal investigator said the rover "started the era of a whole new dimension of space exploration." That dimension, he said, "lasted almost sixty seconds."
Luckily, Americans are accustomed to having the government waste money, so are taking the loss of the rover in stride. "$2.5-billion and 10 years labor by 5,000 people - down the toilet, yawn," was a common reaction. "Weren't we wasting that much per day in Iraq?"
Next on NASA's agenda is to send a $10 billion space probe directly into the sun. NASA's not concerned that the probe will be incinerated by the hellish temperatures on the sun since they're planning on landing at night. "Plus on the bright side, said one NASA inside, we're not expecting to find any quicksand on the sun."