Mars rover fans spilled over onto the floor and stood along the walls at NASA Goddard's Visitor Center to watch Curiosity descend toward the Red Planet Monday.
Despite the hour, with a 1:31 a.m. EDT projected landing time, some 357 observers showed up.
As the moment approached, a mental tug of war played out among Goddard staff and friends as the worst of fears met with the best of hopes.
Word from NASA was it would take hundreds of things going just right for the landing to be successful .
"If any one thing doesn't work just right, it's game over," Tom Rivellini NASA EDL engineer, had warned.
"I'm so nervous," said intern Rachel Kronyak, an undergraduate at Penn State. Before her on a large screen, a live feed of the landing played out.
She tried to capture the action on her camera. "I'm shaking. I can't hold this steady," she said.
Adebowale Ogunjurin, a professor at Galludette University, watched the Goddard sign language interpreters and the projection screen. By his side stood his reason for being there--12-year-old Emmanuel—his son, who is set on becoming an astronaut.
Emmanuel said he wanted to be an astronaut more than ever.
One of those hundreds of steps that had to go just right was the opening of the parachute carrying Curiosity. It had to slow the rover down as it descended at around 13,000 mph, with only seven minutes to reach a speed of 0.
Weighing in at about 100 pounds, the parachute had to withstand 65,000 pounds of force, according to NASA engineer Anita Sengupta.
When it opened and did just that, wild applause ensued.
Then the ultimate moment arrived.
"Touchdown confirmed," said engineer Allen Chen. "We're safe on Mars."
The room burst into an Olympic-like celebration. And it kept coming. People stayed and stayed, watching the screen as Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) greats went a bit bonkers over an insanely ambitious mission that went crazy right.
Photos from Mars brought on more jubiliee. On the screen, JPL staff jumped, danced, rocked and rolled, and men wept without shame.
In a state of Mars intoxication, one man gleefully belted out a phrase beginning with "holy" and ending with profanity, before covering his mouth.
The Goddard crowd laughed with abandon, and some clapped for him.
Returning to the control room, after a brief break for commentary, the camera showed the JPL again.
Out of the Goddard crowd, a voice called "and now it's back to work." More laughter followed.
But the party kept rolling. Rover photos started coming in, igniting more applause, and a cry of, "That's incredible."
"I'm still shaking," Kronyak said aloud.
On screen, a NASA commentator asked what Curiosity's landing meant for the nation. Without pausing, Kronyak answered, calling out, "It means everything."
After the landing, Research Space Scientist Melissa Trainer talked about the importance of the photographs. In the last image, for example, a shadow indicated the rover was upright—the wheels were down and the head was up, she said, with a broad smile.
"You can get all the pings back telling you everything is okay," she said, "but there's something about seeing the picture that really drives home it was successful."