Tommaso P. Rivellini sat in a conference area dubbed the war room as the Mars rover plummeted toward the red planets surface at more than 22,000 miles per hour.
He was terrified.
The Gouverneur native has worked for NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena Calif. since 1991. He is one of the lead inventors of the Curiosity rovers landing system.
The rover was the culmination of almost 10 years of work and $2.5 billion in taxpayer money. As it hurtled toward its landing site, the span of a few minutes would determine if it all had gone to waste.
It was terrifying. It was really scary, Mr. Rivellini recalled. There really are millions of things that could go wrong that could lead to the sudden, catastrophic loss of the whole vehicle.
Mr. Rivellini first discovered a love of space travel in the library of St. James School in Gouverneur. In the back corner of the room, tucked away on the bottom shelf, were books with illustrations of outer space, astronauts and rocket ships.
I remember when it came to library time, Id just run to that back shelf and flip through them, he said.
Many childred develop an interest in space travel, but few make it their profession. Mr. Rivellini was an exception.
Somehow with me, it stuck, he said.
It wasnt until he neared graduation at Gouverneur High School that he began to consider aeronautics as a career. A love of Formula One racing led to an interest in engineering. A guidance counselor recommended that he look into designing aircraft instead of race cars. It proved to be sound advice.
He earned a bachelors degree in aerospace and mechanical engineering at Syracuse University, followed by a masters in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He got a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory soon after graduating.
Mars exploration had become mostly dormant by the time Mr. Rivellini arrived in 1991. NASA had not tried to land a rocket on Mars since the Viking landers in 1975. Many of the scientists and engineers who had worked on those early missions had since retired or moved on to other positions.
There really wasnt a resource of people to ask questions of and learn from, so we were basically reinventing a lot of the technology, Mr. Rivellini said.
He was put on a team that developed the landing system for the Pathfinder spacecraft, which touched down safely on Mars in 1997.
The team used a parachute to slow the spacecraft down, then deployed air bags that bounced it to a safe landing.
At the time we were all pretty naive. We didnt know how hard it was going to be, Mr. Rivellini said. In retrospect, there was a lot of luck involved.
This luck was not to hold out in the years following the Pathfinder mission.
In 1999 NASA launched the Mars Polar Lander, a station with two detachable probes that were meant to land near the south pole of Mars. All three components were lost on arrival, presumed to have crashed into the planets surface.
That caused a lot of soul-searching within JPL and NASA, Mr. Rivellini said.
That failure could not be repeated. Quality and precision were the focus for the next big Mars surface mission: the launch of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
We pulled out all the stops, Mr. Rivellini said.
When the rovers arrived safely in 2004, it was a sign that the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had come into its own.
We went from being a small, ragtag group of people ... to a well-oiled machine able to tap into the resources of the whole country, Mr. Rivellini said.
The same devotion to quality led the creation of the Curiosity mission, which landed successfully on Mars Aug. 6, thanks largely to the Sky Crane landing system invented by Mr. Rivellini and others.
As news of Curiositys successful landing reached Earth, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted in pandemonium.
All that tension just disappeared, Mr. Rivellini said.
With Curiosity now in the competent hands of the surface team (the rover took its first test drive on Wednesday), Mr. Rivellini is working on landing systems for even bigger projects. NASA hopes to create a lander that will be able to return a sample of Martian rock to Earth or even, some day, send human beings to the red planet and back.