How it was supposed to work -- and the NASA scientists themselves admit it's sheer craziness -- is exactly how it did work.
And the Mars rover Curiosity just phoned home this morning. It even texted a picture of itself on the Martian surface. Kids today.
Meantime, CBS News and The Associated Press fill in the details:
Dutifully executing its complex flight control software, the Mars Science Laboratory silently raced toward its target Sunday, picking up speed as it closed in for a 13,200-mph plunge into the Red Planet's atmosphere and an action-packed seven-minute descent required a rocket-powered "sky crane" to lower the one-ton nuclear-powered rover to the surface. It seems to have gone off without a hitch.TOUCHDOWN! In every sense of the word.
"We are wheels down on Mars," came the news from JPL as engineers saw the first grainy image beamed directly back from the rover - showing one of its wheels on the Martian surface.
CBS News space consultant William Harwood reports from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California that the rover's target was Gale Crater and the goal was a pinpoint landing near the base of a three-mile-high mound of layered rock that represents hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of years of Martian history, a frozen record of the planet's changing environment and evolution.
Exploring the crater floor and climbing Mount Sharp over the next two years, the Curiosity rover will look for signs of past or present habitability and search for carbon compounds, the building blocks of life as it is known on Earth.
But first, the rover had to get there and its entry, descent, and landing represented the most challenging robotic descent to the surface of another world ever attempted, a tightly choreographed sequence of autonomously executed events with little margin for error.
"We're about to land a rover that is 10 times heavier than (earlier rovers) with 15 times the payload," Doug McCuistion, director of Mars exploration at NASA Headquarters, told reporters. "Tonight's the Super Bowl of planetary exploration, one yard line, one play left. We score and win, or we don't score and we don't win.