'Nail-biting'—Members of NASA's Mars Perseverance Team on the Thrill of Seeing Rover Land

Scientists involved in the development of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover have told Newsweek about the intense emotions they experienced after watching the vehicle safely land on the surface of the Red Planet last Thursday.

The experts, who work across fields ranging from engineering to AI, all spoke about the anxiety and delight involved in sending the rover nearly 300 million miles to Earth's second-closest planetary neighbor.

Nagin Cox serves as a deputy leader for Perseverance's engineering operations team. She wanted to work in the field of robotic space exploration since she was 14 years old, and from her first day at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cox has written "IWWTWTF" on the corner of all of her notebooks as a reminder of how badly she wanted to join the team. It means: "I was willing to wash the floors."

Nagin Cox
Nagin Cox, deputy leader of Perseverance's engineering operations team. Cox said it is "mind-blowing" to see audio and footage sent by the rover. Nagin Cox

"Landing on Mars is hard!"

"I have had the privilege of being in the control rooms for the last four rover landings and each one is nail-biting and epic," she said. "Not only were we thrilled and excited but also deeply relieved that it worked. Landing on Mars is hard!"

Cox, who has worked on Perseverance—or Percy, as the rover is affectionately known—since 2017, called the photos, video, and audio clips that have been sent back so far "nothing short of spectacular."

She said: "They exert a special hold on team members who have worked on multiple rovers. We have watched with pride as these rovers have matured into more and more capable robotic emissaries and it is truly mind blowing to be able to journey virtually with them as these videos and microphones allow us to experience more of what the rover is experiencing. Like being there!"

She is now looking forward to monitoring the health of the Perseverance rover on every Mars day—or "sol"—of its operational life going forward, while ensuring its engineering and science activities are sent over correctly. NASA hopes the rover will continue to work for at least one Mars year, or roughly two Earth years.

"Jumping Up And Down Like Kids"

Greg Dubos
Greg Dubos, Perseverance systems engineer, said he "literally gasped when I first saw the video of the skycrane flying away after delivering the rover to the surface." Greg Dubos

Greg Dubos is a systems engineer for the team that helped ensure the rover arrived at the Red Planet safely.

He led the scientists that commanded and monitored the vehicle during its 292 million-mile journey, and his involvement in the project has spanned three years.

"Despite knowing all the work, the planning, the testing, that went into this for years from hundreds of dedicated people, you know that Mars is unforgiving and that something wrong can still occur at any point," he told Newsweek. "So hearing the confirmation of touchdown let all these thoughts and emotions out in an instant."

Dubos was inspired to work in spaceflight engineering in his youth after he saw NASA successfully land and operate its Pathfinder rover in 1997. He hopes the Perseverance mission will inspire a new generation.

"Sadly, we could not hug each other to share this human moment due to the pandemic, so jumping up and down like kids was a natural way to express our exhilaration.

"I literally gasped when I first saw the video of the skycrane flying away after delivering the rover to the surface. I had pictured it many times in my head, and had seen our CGI simulations, but now the real thing was playing before our eyes!"

"Extreme Anxiety"

Hiro Ono
Masahiro 'Hiro' Ono, an artificial intelligence scientist for Perseverance said: "the two year journey on Mars is ahead of us, you never know what you will find, what you will encounter." Masahiro Ono

Now that the rover is on Mars, there is the task of ensuring it is able to traverse the planet's surface safely; a job for which Masahiro 'Hiro' Ono is responsible. As Group Leader of the Robotic Surface Mobility Group at JPL, Hiro employs machine automation methods to help Perseverance autonomously drive around Mars.

"The first feeling I had after the landing was a supreme excitement, which followed the extreme anxiety during the 'seven minutes of terror'," he told Newsweek, referring to the minutes between Perseverance's entry into Mars' atmosphere and its touchdown on the surface.

NASA had no control over the rover during this time, since radio signals could not travel between Mars and the Earth fast enough to make any meaningful difference to the landing sequence. The rover was on its own.

Of the team's excitement, Hiro said: "It's like an explosion—you pressurize a tank to extreme pressure for seven minutes, and then suddenly open the valve. More precisely, my tank has been pressurized for 32 years!

"Then the next feeling I had was like on the first day of a backpacking trip. You land in an airport of a country you've never visited, pass the immigration, and get an entry stamp on your passport. A few weeks of adventure will be ahead of you.

"My current feeling is like that moment. The two year journey on Mars is ahead of us, you never know what you will find, what you will encounter."

Correction 02/26/21, 4:24 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to correct the methods used by Masahiro 'Hiro' Ono.