After seven months of travel, Lockheed Martin celebrates successful InSight landing

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By Deborah Swearingen

Apprehension filled the air at Lockheed Martin on Monday, as employees, family members and friends eagerly awaited InSight’s landing on Mars.
The tension was palpable at Lockheed’s Waterton Canyon campus, which was one of many locations across the country hosting a viewing party, and the nerves certainly made sense when considering the time and effort that went into making Monday’s mission a reality. It took seven years of planning; nearly seven months of travel time from Earth to Mars; and seven minutes for InSight to land.
In the next two years, InSight will provide scientists a first glimpse into the interior of the planet while also measuring seismic activity and meteorite impacts. InSight is part of NASA’s Discovery Program, but the spacecraft was built and tested at Lockheed Martin and continues to be operated from its South Jeffco facility.
Although this is a mission to Mars, Tim Linn believes it will provide pertinent information about Earth’s history and evolution as well. As the InSight entry, descent and landing manager at Lockheed, Linn played a huge role in Monday’s mission.
“It really is an Earth mission and an inter-body, inter-planet mission as well,” he said.
“This is setting the stage not only for scientific uncoverings but also setting the stage for future humans to Mars,” Linn added.
New robotic technology will allow a claw-like structure on InSight to obtain samples from Mars that can then be tested by scientists.
“We’re playing the claw game on Mars without a joystick,” said Jaime Singer, a NASA engineer based in California, who spoke on a livestream displayed at watch parties across the country.
During the past seven years, recently retired Lockheed engineer Bill Willcockson of Conifer had a front seat to the project. Before his retirement, he worked to design the heat shield, which helped the spacecraft withstand temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
On Monday, Willcockson returned to Lockheed Martin to watch alongside former coworkers and friends.
When preparing for launch day, engineers tested pieces of the spacecraft in a high-energy, high-velocity heat flow facility in California. Still, it’s impossible to know for sure what will happen when the craft passes through the Martian atmosphere.
Willcockson understands the uncertainty better than most. He was part of the Mars Polar Lander mission in the late 1990s, where the spacecraft disappeared without a trace. To this day, no one knows for sure what happened to it.
While Willcockson felt “a little apprehension, of course” about the InSight landing, he also felt positive about the chance for success.
“We had real confidence that we’d done everything we could, and that’s all you could do,” he said.
Slowly but surely, InSight made its way to the destination. Its parachute deployed, and it moved closer and closer to the surface of the Red Planet. When it officially touched down, the room erupted in cheers, high fives and hugs.
“It was such a rush,” Willcockson said, minutes after the successful landing. “It really was just like a huge adrenaline rush.”