Engineer Brooke Harper has spent the last four and a half years making sure that the Mars lander InSight would make a graceful descent on the red planet. When the day finally came on Nov. 26 for InSight to land, she recalled feeling “extremely tense” in Mission Control.
When the announcer declared that InSight had landed, engineers and scientists celebrated. Harper and her colleague, Gene Bonfiglio, performed a touchdown dance, which was caught on NASA’s livestream camera. The elaborate routine has drawn widespread public attention to the mission.
“When we actually heard that we touched down, it’s immediate relief, exhaustion and amazement,” Harper said. “Up to that point, you are a ball of nerves and, you know, anything can happen.”
Harper and Bonfiglio borrowed a routine made famous by San Francisco 49ers receivers Marquise Goodwin and Kendrick Bourne. Bonfiglio is a New England Patriots fan, while Harper cheers for the Kansas City Chiefs, a team she chose after her once-favorite Rams left St. Louis.
“We've given each other a hard time over the years just, you know, talking about football amongst other things, and we thought it would be kind of fun,” said Harper, who is from Chesterfield. “We had no idea that the camera shot would be the one that everyone has used across the world.”
It took six months for the spacecraft to travel to Mars. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. Its mission is to burrow into the red planet to study its interior and help scientists understand the early evolution of rocky planets, such as Mars and Earth.
“It's been really neat to see at least some people that had not even known a thing about the mission. At least they can see our stupid little handshake and hopefully they understand what an accomplishment the whole team has achieved,” Harper said.
About 40 percent of missions to Mars have been successful, though every U.S. mission has survived the landing process. The planet’s thin atmosphere provides little friction to slow down a spacecraft. InSight carries a thick heat shield and strong parachute, in case it needs to land during a dust storm.
Harper studied aerospace engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her unwavering interest in space eventually led her to work for NASA.
“It’s really exciting,” Harper said. “This is just the beginning of the science that’s yet to come.”
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