Cal Poly graduate recalls moments of amazement and relief as member of Mars mission

Anxiety, elation: NASA scientists erupt in cheers as spacecraft lands on Mars

NASA InSight rover successfully landed on the planet Mars on November 26, 2018.
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NASA InSight rover successfully landed on the planet Mars on November 26, 2018.

The Nov. 26 landing on Mars of a NASA spacecraft was captured in post-touchdown images seen around the world.

Behind the scenes, Cal Poly aeronautical science graduate Tim Weise played a key role on the team that guided the successful mission.

Weise completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees in aeronautical science at Cal Poly in the 1990s — and he recently served as the Mars InSight project’s deputy mission manager, responsible for overseeing a broad range of technical aspects of the project.

The final hour leading up to the spacecraft’s touchdown was nerve-wracking, he recalled, the culmination of nearly seven months and 300 million miles of space travel. The team couldn’t control the weather or how smooth the surface of the planet would be upon landing, Weise said.

“We had full-team rehearsals to prepare for the landing three times over the past year,” Weise said in a phone interview. “We were very well prepared. But in the final minutes of the landing, there’s no time to correct anything.”

As deputy mission manager of InSight, Weise helped ensure that all of the flight teams, as well as the ground software needed, were ready for operation.

Insight’s Mars landing image. NASA

About 40 percent of past Mars missions, by any space agency, have been successful, according to NASA’s website. And the U.S. investment in the project is more than $800 million. A crash would have been a devastating blow, but a possibility.

The time it took to cover the final 17 meters to the smooth expanse of lava called Elysium Planitia seemed like an eternity, Weise said in a statement released by Cal Poly.

Audiences nationwide nervously awaited the result of the flight.

“Touchdown confirmed!” a voice announced. “InSight is on the surface of Mars!”

Weise said the team relied on radio signals to get the word of the touchdown, and the first images that were captured within about 10 minutes of its landing were thrilling to see.

“It was amazing to see the images after it landed. It was a huge relief,” Weise told The Tribune.

“There are a lot of things that have to go right for successful landing,” he added. “We landed pretty close to Mars’ equator. Luckily, it was in a smooth patch.”

The two-year mission will help NASA scientists learn more about the planet’s inner core, evolutionary makeup and seismic activity, probing the soil with instruments that will glean useful data.

Besides receiving his education from Cal Poly, which led to jobs working on communication satellites and eventually the project for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The project’s local connection also included the May 5 launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Weise said he was in the mission control room, but his family members, like others who work for NASA, went to Vandenberg to watch the blastoff.

“Unfortunately, it was foggy,” Weise said. “But when you’re there, people can feel the rumble of the rocket. It’s something to experience. But I never have watched a rocket launch. I’ve always been in missions control.”

Riding along on NASA’s Insight mission were two CubeSats — or mini satellites the size of briefcases — that were tested and packaged for launch in Cal Poly’s Advanced Technology Lab, according to a university press release.

“Other missions that I’ve worked on have not had such widespread public engagement, so it is really amazing to see how excited people all over the country, and even the world, get for something that I’m working on,” Weise said in Cal Poly’s statement. “It is very humbling to be a part of such a historic event.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.