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After A Historic Landing, A Postcard From The Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The newsroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is beginning to thin out as the Mars Science Laboratory transitions from an exciting news story, to a long duration — possibly very long duration — exploration of the geologic and environmental history of Mars.

For the reporters still in the newsroom, fatigue is beginning to set in. BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos has been at it nonstop for 30 hours. I feel a bit guilty for stepping out and getting a few hours sleep.

Reporter fatigue is matched by the scientist and engineers who stayed up for the landing and that had to go back to work preparing for ground operations. They have the added problem of going on Mars time. The Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes long, so if you're on Mars time, you have to stay up an extra 39 minutes a day. That doesn't sound so bad at first, but after a while on the schedule you find you're going to bed when the sun is shining, and you face a case of non–stop jetlag.

In the hours before landing the newsroom was packed. I mean packed. While engineers fretted about a safe landing, reporters fretted about deadlines. We all knew when landing was supposed to happen, 10:31 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. But what would we report if there were no signal? And just as important, when would we report it? Many reporters, including me became instant experts in the rover's X-band and UHF capabilities for sending a signal about its status back to Earth.

Happily we never had to use that knowledge.

This is the fifth Mars landing I've covered. They have all been successful. I didn't cover Mars Polar Lander and it crashed. There's a tradition at JPL to break out peanuts just before a planetary landing. I think peanuts are no longer needed. All they need to do is make sure I cover the landing.

(Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR.)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.