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Adam Steltzner, Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing engineer, reacts after the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars and as first images start coming in to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sunday Aug. 5, 2012, in Pasadena. The rover was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Steltzner is a graduate of Tamalpais High School. (NASA photo/Bill Ingalls)

With the help of a Tamalpais High School graduate, the Curiosity rover streaked through the thin Martian atmosphere Sunday night to a safe and stunningly smooth night landing on a faraway flood plain, ready to launch the most sustained human study of our closest planetary cousin.

Shouts of joy and relief went up from controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as a signal arrived at mission control at 10:32 p.m., confirming that the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft that carried Curiosity had survived a perilous descent and landed intact.

Tam High graduate Adam Steltzner, 49, the leader of the JPL team that dreamed up a new way to approach the planet, called the landing "extremely clean."


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touched down in conditions that were on the more benign side of our expectations," said Steltzner, who graduated from Tam in 1981 and later attended the College of Marin, where he first studied physics under Professor Stephen Prata. "Our navigation error was on the low side of our expectations. There was good alignment between celestial sensors. And our powered flight appears to have been excellent. We landed with 140 kilograms of fuel reserves out of 400 kilos carried in.

"That great things take many people working together, to make them happen, is one of the fantastic things of human existence," said a teary-eyed Steltzner. "In my life ... this is, and will forever be, the greatest thing I have ever been given."

Confirming its


arrival, it sent home a grainy snapshot of itself — a 64 by 64 thumbnail pixel image of its own shadow.

"Wow. It was picture perfect. It almost seemed dreamlike," said NASA Ames geologist David Blake of Los Altos, creator of a $40 million tool on Curiosity that will do extensive soil analysis of the planet, critical to understanding the possibility of Martian life, past or present.

As the rays of a late afternoon sun illuminated the frigid Martian landing site, elated and slightly amazed mission controllers reported that the one-ton nuclear-powered spacecraft had completed all its automated landing tasks — surviving a frightening entry through the planet's thin atmosphere, dubbed "Seven Minutes of Terror."

"The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld.

In Mountain View, more 6,000 thrilled Earthlings gathered in the dark at NASA Ames' grassy Shenandoah Plaza to view the tense scenes of the JPL control room on 50-by-25-foot screens.

The crowd leaped to its feet at the good news. Several giddy groups of friends joined in celebratory dancing.

Overhead, above the western horizon, the planet twinkled in

an inky sky.

The odds of landing safely on Mars were only about 40 percent, based on all missions by all countries, according to NASA.

The deceleration of the laboratory's descent has been compared to driving from 65 miles per hour to zero — in only 2.1 seconds.

This specific mission, costing $2.5 billion, was the hardest NASA has ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration. The size of a Mini Cooper, it had no protective cushions and raced through Mars' thin atmosphere like a shooting star.

The laboratory spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway maneuver of the rocket backpack.

Its first grainy photo was followed by a second, larger 250 pixel image. The initial set of images will come from the one-megapixel "Hazard-Avoidance" cameras attached to the body of the rover, to prevent it from striking rocks or falling into canyons. Once engineers have determined that it is safe to deploy the rover's higher-tech cameras, a process that may take several days, Curiosity will begin to survey its exotic surroundings. Eventually, panoramic color shots will be assembled.

While Curiosity is not equipped specifically to seek life, the unifying theme of the mission is the study of the planet's geology and chemical compounds, which contains clues essential to any life that may exist there, now or in the past.

Its descent riveted the global audience. NASA's website got so much traffic that it shut down.

"It's great that this is drawing so much attention to the program," said Steltzner, who has found himself in the center of the Mars media frenzy over the past few days.

While he dabbled in theater in school, Steltzner — who grew up in Sausalito — admitted he was not the best student while attending Tam and was more interested in partying.

After graduating he continued that lifestyle, playing bass in the band Stick Figures. Then one night at a band gig at a Corte Madera club he took note of constellation Orion.

"It moved from Point Richmond before the show and when I got out at it was over Wolfback Ridge," he said. "It really intrigued me."

Soon after he quit the band and enrolled in the College of Marin.

"I was living in Mill Valley, working at Living Foods and was riding my mountain bike to Kentfield for school, it was great," said Steltzner, who now lives in Southern California. "I still miss Marin. I love to come back."

IJ reporter Mark Prado contributed to this report.