Nestled below the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory outside Pasadena has a surprisingly low-tech feel. For more than 40 years, space missions to the planets have been controlled from its operations rooms, yet the place is still striking for its bucolic charm. Mule deer crisscross its paths, pausing only to nibble plants, while its buildings, erected during the heyday of the U.S. space program, now have a settled, slightly worn aspect.

For a Californian campus, it is all very laid back — on most occasions. On Aug. 5 last year, however, JPL was far from being a peaceful place. Indeed, the place was in tumult. Thousands of anxious scientists and engineers had gathered to track the fate of the Curiosity Mars rover, the most sophisticated interplanetary probe in history, which was now about to plunge toward the surface of the Red Planet after a journey of 569 million km.

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