CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An American robotic field geologist on Mars beamed back the first human voice transmission from another planet Monday as NASA looked forward to sending U.S. astronauts to the red planet.
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, who died Saturday at age 82, was the first human to transmit a message from a natural planetary satellite on July 20, 1969.
"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," Armstrong told Mission Control after a harrowing moon landing during which the highly regarded test pilot nearly ran out of gas.
The first human voice transmission from an actual planet was decidedly less dramatic. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, introduced himself.
His message had been beamed up to Curiosity. Then it was sent back, and Bolden noted that he was "speaking to you via the broadcast capabilities of the Curiosity rover," which landed Aug. 6.
Situated in an ancient Martian crater and near a mountain taller than any in the lower 48 states, Curiosity is capable of beaming back data directly or through three manmade satellites orbiting the planet.
NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Europe's Mars Express spacecraft comprise a communications network capable of relaying data from Curiosity back to Earth.
In his verbal missive, Bolden congratulated the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that pulled off Curiosity's 154 million-mile voyage and its death-defying seven-minute atmospheric entry, descent and landing.
"This is an extraordinary achievement. Landing on Mars is not easy. Others have tried. Only America has fully succeeded," Bolden said.
The 10 scientific instruments on Curiosity "will tell us much about the possibility of life on Mars," Bolden said.
"Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not-too-distant future."
In 2010, President Barack Obama challenged NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s.
Launched last November, the Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover survived a dangerous dive into Gale Crater, a bowl-shaped depression that is about 100 miles wide.
In its midst is Mount Sharp, an 18,000-foot-tall mountain that is geologically comparable to the Grand Canyon. Layer after layer of sedimentary strata exposes an epoch by epoch geological history of the planet.
Instruments aboard Curiosity are capable of determining whether Mars is, or ever was, habitable; whether the planet does, or ever did, host all the building blocks required for the formation of microbial life.
An extensive checkout of Curiosity engineering systems and instruments is continuing, and mission managers are preparing for the rover's first trek toward a target of scientific interest.
That drive should start within the next week or so. But Curiosity already has returned data to satisfy three of five human senses.
"It's the first time we have the sounds, the sights, the smells of Mars," said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory Program Executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission and the Curiosity rover are expected to operate at least two years.