Shift

Jay Leno drives a version of the $2.5 billion Mars Rover

"Touchdown confirmed. We're sitting on Mars."

The date was August 5, 2012. After a seven-month journey, the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover finally settled on the surface of the red planet. The crew back on Earth had managed not to flip it, crash it or break it. The excitement inside the control room was unparalleled.

The celebration happened at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, California, just 15 miles from Jay Leno's garage. On a recent episode of CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage," Leno ventures up the road to see the facility in person and meet the men and women who safely built, launched and landed Curiosity.

JPL operations manager Jim McClure fondly remembers the day of the Curiosity landing. He tells Leno, "I've been here for over 28 years, and that was probably the most emotional evening of my life."

McClure explains that over 50 million Americans were watching on their web servers that night: "That's a lot of pressure for us geeks and nerds."

A version of the Mars rover sits in an unassuming garage at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California.
Source: CNBC
A version of the Mars rover sits in an unassuming garage at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California.

After touring mission control, Leno is taken outside to the JPL Mars Yard where he finds an unassuming metal garage. Inside sits the most expensive vehicle on the planet: the 2011 Curiosity Rover VSTB, or Vehicle Systems Test Bed. It is essentially identical to the one currently on Mars.

Leno asks if he may take it for a test drive.

He is told … no.

Instead, he is taken to a stripped-down mock-up of the rover, one that technicians call "Scarecrow," because it has no brains.

Leno replies, "That's why they call me 'Scarecrow' at the network. I had no idea."

Jay Leno test drives a stripped down version of the Mars rover.
Source: CNBC
Jay Leno test drives a stripped down version of the Mars rover.

Soon, Leno is holding a remote control and driving the rover out of its garage. Slowly.

Curiosity's top speed is only 0.1 mph.

Leno turns control over to Gareth Meirion-Griffith, a robotics systems engineer, who then demonstrates how the rover climbs over rocks. Even at the glacial pace, it's a fascinating piece of machinery to watch.

And the real one is somewhere out there on Mars, climbing over similar rocks.

And taking selfies. Because it does that, too.

CNBC's " Jay Leno's Garage " airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET.