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.