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Winfield native helps NASA rover land safely on Mars

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After rehearsing the robot's landing on the red planet hundreds, if not thousands, of times during the past six years, Chris Kuhl got a text message from one of the many co-workers with him in a control room late Sunday.

"One of the people I'm reporting data to sends me a message saying, 'This is for real, exclamation point'," said Kuhl, a Winfield native. "At that point, it started hitting home."

During the "seven minutes of terror," the length of time it took NASA's Curiosity rover to get from the edge of the Martian atmosphere to the ground, Kuhl, 41, was collecting temperature and pressure readings, among other things, while at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Valencia, Calif.

Kuhl is chief engineer of the Mars Science Laboratory, Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation program (MEDLI). MEDLI is a set of tools fastened to the rover's heat shield, which monitored atmospheric conditions during the robot's entry and descent.

At about 10:30 p.m. in Pasadena, a signal reached Earth notifying the control room that the rover had landed successfully.

"I'm nervous, trying to make sense of it all and, before I know it, while I'm still looking at data, they've called touchdown," Kuhl recalled Tuesday. "At that point, I knew the heat shield survived. Our worries diminished and everyone started jumping for joy."

Curiosity was launched on Nov. 26, 2011, to study whether Mars' environment ever had conditions suitable for microbial life. Moments after the rover's landing on Sunday, pictures were sent back from the surface confirming that the landing had been a success.

"Somebody screamed, 'Here comes a thumbnail!' "Kuhl recalled. "We had no doubt whatsoever it was successful at that point."

The landing on Mars, which employed a new technique, had been especially tricky. Budget constraints added more stress to NASA's mission, and the communication delay between Mars and Earth meant the rover's spacecraft was on autopilot, according to The Associated Press.

"We were almost in shock that nothing went wrong," Kuhl said. "The spacecraft itself actually was performing better than anyone expected."

The MEDLI data is stored on the rover and will send readings back to Earth to help design future heat shields and spacecraft, he said.

Kuhl said he always knew he was interested in space exploration, even as a student at Winfield High School. When he attended West Virginia Wesleyan, though, he still wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to focus on.

"When I first went to Wesleyan, I really didn't know what I wanted to do," he said, "so I got a degree in engineering physics."

For graduate school, he majored in mechanical engineering at Purdue University.

"He's always been really good in all the math and sciences," said his mother, Dottie Kuhl, who still lives in Winfield.

"I don't know where that came from but it wasn't from me," she said with a laugh.

Kuhl flew to California last Friday from Hampton, Va., where he now lives and works for NASA's Langley Research Center. His two kids stayed up to watch the landing on TV.

"I got a text from my daughter the next morning that said, 'you did it," he said.

Dottie Kuhl meant to record the NASA Channel to watch the landing on Monday, but hit a wrong button. She's watched reruns, though.           

Now that the landing on Mars is completed, going back to a regular work routine might be challenging, Kuhl said.

"Realistically, not everything we do is going to be like Sunday."

Still, he hopes the Mars mission excited a younger generation about space exploration.

"It's very math- and science-oriented, but it really takes everything -- knowing history, culture," he said. "And with so many thousands of people working on it, it brings in the best of society and puts them together to produce something like this."

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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