It was a bit surreal to stand in the middle of Times Square and hear a throng of revelers chant “NASA! NASA!” as if the space agency had just won a gold medal in the Olympics. They were cheering the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars, a $2.5 billion endeavor that saw NASA’s most advanced rover yet enter the planet’s atmosphere at a blistering 13,200 miles per hour.
At 11:30pm EDT, when NASA started broadcasting coverage of the event, the crowd was thin and slightly underwhelmed. Many complained to me that the Toshiba Vision screen, dwarfed by a blinding Dunkin’ Donuts advertisement below it, was hard to see and that the only audio provided was through a smartphone app that seemed to be running a minute behind the visuals.
Several younger attendees seemed more excited about private space companies like Elon Musk‘s SpaceX than they did about the agency that put a man on the Moon.
“NASA is a passing thing,” said Ben Brittain, an otherwise enthusiastic 19-year-old computer science student from the Rochester Institute for Technology. “I’m pretty sure this is going to be the last big thing NASA does.”
As the night, cool and wet thanks to a passing thunderstorm, went on, people began trickling in from every direction. They heard about the event through different ways: major news sites, Reddit, TV broadcasts, NASA representatives handing out stickers on nearby street corners.
For children like Michelle Rock, 15, and David Rock, 13, this was the first time they had seen people come together for something like this. “We are just as excited as she is,” said Michelle, pointing to her mother Diana, who had brought them from Cleveland, Ohio.
Diana, 51, has witnessed more NASA milestones than her children but as a young child she missed the most important one (hint: it involves Neil Armstrong and a big step).
“I finally get to watch something land, by God,” she joked.
Others most vividly remember the tragedies in NASA’s history, such as Javier Osorio, 27, who remembers the Columbia disaster, and Carlos Mendez, who watched as Challenger went up in flames in 1986 while he was at school in Melbourne, Florida, about an hour’s drive from Cape Canaveral.
Finally, 1:30am hit. Times Square was packed. People looked up intently with buds in their ears, listening to the back-and-forth chatter of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.
The live footage of NASA scientists flinging their hands into the air tipped the crowd off before the delayed audio could: Curiosity had landed safely on Mars.
A cheer erupted. The rover’s first picture — a 256-pixel-by-256-pixel image of its own shadow against the Gale crater — was greeted with the hoots and applause normally reserved for winning touchdowns.
“It felt great being here in Times Square with everyone around and everyone cheering,” said Owen Herterich, a student at Parsons School of Design in New York. “I mean, I’m only 22 years old. This is my first big space moment.”
If you work at NASA, that’s exactly the kind of sentiment you want to hear. A lot of people have been born since Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969; many of them don’t have a “space moment.” For at least a few people watching in Times Square and around the world, this will be that moment — one that, hopefully, will be supplanted when human feet finally touch Martian soil.