Sunday, September 16, 2012

Planet Fest 2012 - Curiosity Has Landed!

When was the last time you were part of a crowd of 3,000 people cheering wildly and chanting the name of a government agency for minutes on end?

Yeah, that had never happened to me either - until the evening of August 5, 2012, around 10:30 pm PDT at Planet Fest 2012 in Pasadena, a weekend-long celebration hosted by The Planetary Society that culminated in Curiosity's landing on Mars. I was at Planet Fest with a friend. About an hour before the scheduled landing time we had secured two seats in the second row from the front in one of two large auditoriums with several over-sized screens that allowed us live views of the JPL control room and let us interact with other Curiosity Celebrations around the world: Canada, Australia, Times Square. The whole world was watching.

As 10:30 pm drew closer, we endured a nail-biting wait as Curiosity performed a picture-perfect landing at Gale Crater. One after another - with a 15-minute time delay due to the distance between Mars and Earth - Curiosity hit every milestone of her entry, descent and landing phases. 

Bruce Betts was on stage with Bill Nye, who had engaged, entertained and interacted with the audience all evening. In the final minutes of the landing phase, as we awaited the signal that Curiosity was safely on the ground, both Bill Nye and Bruce Betts were riveted to the screens, their backs turned to the audience. Then we heard the signal - Curiosity was on the ground, on another world! 

The cheers and jubilation that ensued were a wonder to witness and experience. At first it was clapping, cheers and yells, then a few "USA! USA! USA!" emanated from the crowd, which quickly morphed into "JPL! JPL! JPL!". The entire audience joined in for several minutes. I was literally jumping up and down. 

It came as a total surprise to me when I suddenly found myself face to face with a cameraman and a reporter, who thrust an ABC 7 microphone into my face and said: "You seem pretty excited. What do you think?" I am usually very, very reserved around news media, especially broadcast media, so I don't know what came over me that night. I yelled "I think this is the most exciting thing humans have ever done!" into the mic. (Yes I know that's arguable. But I was biased. We'd just landed a giant freaking nuclear-powered robot with lasers on Mars!) In retrospect, I overdid it for the camera. I don't believe ABC 7 ever aired my excited outburst, whereas my friend, who wasn't quite acting as much as a madwoman as I was, found herself all over the local evening and morning news.  

So yes, I flubbed my chance to reach a large TV audience that night with a pithy sound bite because my excitement got the better of me. I don’t ever apologize for my enthusiasm for space exploration. But next time a TV reporter sticks a microphone into my face and asks me to comment on a planetary science mission, I will know exactly what to say and how to say it so that I will actually get some air time!

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