Chief engineer Rob Manning: inventor for the Mars landing

An the “seven minutes of horror” Rob Manning will probably never really get used to. Then when it suddenly becomes very quiet in the NASA control center in Pasadena and everyone is waiting for the redeeming signal that a probe or a rover has landed safely on Mars. The chief engineer of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has already experienced the most critical phase of a landing maneuver after entering the Martian atmosphere five times in his career. So far everything has always worked out well. And on Thursday evening shortly after 9.45 p.m. German time, the landing of the Mars rover Perseverance went as planned: the entry into the Martian atmosphere, the opening of the parachute, the ignition of the brake rocket and the lowering of the robot on long ropes on the surface of the red Planets. The cheering was correspondingly great, but also the relief in the control room in Pasadena.

Rob Manning, who studied electrical engineering, mathematics and physics at Caltech and the renowned Whitman College, is considered an old hand at NASA. Over the past forty years, he has worked as an engineer on missions such as Galileo (to Jupiter), Cassini (to Saturn), Magellan (to Venus) and numerous missions to Mars. With his team he developed and built the Mars rovers Pathfinder, Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity as well as Curiosity, which he brought safely to their destination.

In this illustration, the Skycrane drops the Mars rover Perseverance.


In this illustration, the Skycrane drops the Mars rover Perseverance.
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Image: dpa

Because for Curiosity – the landing took place on July 5, 2012 – due to the high weight of the landing unit or airbag, as with the smaller Mars robots, was out of the question, he and his colleagues devised the spectacular crane technology – the Skycrane (sky crane). Manning should have been even more pleased that the abseiling maneuver has now also proven itself on the even larger and more expensive Rover Perseverance.

But the married father of a daughter, who never missed a Mercury, Gemini or Apollo start as a child, is not only responsible for technical matters on the rovers. Last year he and colleagues developed a special ventilation system for the control room in Pasadena. It ensures that aerosols with Covid-19 pathogens cannot stay in the air for longer, so that work is possible even in confined spaces.

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