PHOTO LINK: "Planetary Spaceflight Portfolio"
Making Tracks: Stories from Mars
Scientists and engineers from JPL share their stories from the past year on the Red Planet
by Michelle Evans
Editor’s Note: A year ago, twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER-A: Spirit and MER-B: Opportunity) landed on Mars. Their mission was to search for signs of water on Mars to show that the red planet may have once been an abode for life. That mission was accomplished and yet the rovers still kept going and going. Slated for only 90 days, they have both greatly surpassed their lifetimes, so far clocking in over one year of scientific research.
On January 3, 2005, the first anniversary of Spirit’s landing, a special media event was held at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to commemorate the milestone that no one ever thought could be reached. The Orange County Space Society was invited to attend the event and to report on it to our members.
One of the special presentations during the day was to have several of the members of the MER team come forward to share their personal stories about this mission, stories that have never been told to the public before. So please sit back and relax while some of them tell their tales. Imagine yourself on a vast rust red plain with mountains and craters in the distance, experiencing what the rovers are going through right this moment…
We’ve learned that if we ask some profound questions, we’re likely to get some profound answers. Opportunity’s discovery that Mars once held a large amount of surface water is indeed a profound finding. What it tells us is that the climate and atmosphere of our closest neighbor was once dramatically different, and perhaps conducive to life. Understanding why that changed may very well provide a whole new perspective of our own place in our solar system, in this galaxy, and indeed the broader universe. Of course, one year ago we had no assurance that everything would go according to plan.
I can say with great confidence that the spirit of exploration and discovery has never been more vibrant at NASA than right here and right now. It started one year ago, right here, on this day.
Dr. Firouz Naderi:
“Weather at the Rose Bowl”
It is 24 hours before landing and we’re in [JPL Director] Charles Elachi’s conference room. A bunch of scientists come in. They say that they have evidence that, because of a [Martian] dust storm, the weather has warmed up, the air has risen, and, therefore, if we were to open the parachute where we had intended, there wouldn’t be enough air under it to slow the spacecraft. So the suggestion was to open it higher up. Well, If you opened it higher up, the spacecraft would be going too fast and the parachute would shred to pieces. So we’re sitting there in Charles’ conference room, agonizing. How do they know? Are they sure?
I remember sitting in the conference room, and my mind wandered. I’m a football fan; I went to USC. Right about that time, USC was getting ready to play at the Rose Bowl. So as a distraction, I was following what the weather would be on game day. With four days to go, I pick up the Los Angeles Times and it says that it’s going to rain on game day. With three days to go, I check again. They now say it is going to be cloudy. With two days to go, they went back to rain. When the game came, it was sunny!
I’m thinking to myself, that this is how well we know the weather on this planet, and yet our professional lives depend on if we can guess it exactly right at 3:15 in the afternoon, Mars Local Time, to figure out whether or not to open the parachute higher or lower.
As it turned out, we did open it a little bit higher, and we needed every bit of it.
On the night of the landing, everybody was very nervous. Governor Schwarzenegger was here, and I am agitated, tugging at my tie. He asks me, “What are you so nervous about?” I looked at him and thought to myself, given the Governor’s background [in films], maybe he’s thinking that, if they don’t get it right on the first take, maybe Rob Manning in the control room, is going to say “Cut. Let’s take it from the top one more time!”
“Worry and Be Happy”
Back in 2000 we had suffered two very depressing failures of Mars missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. In that environment we had to show that we could come back and make these [rover] missions work. As we went through development we discovered we had to project an intense, stark reality about how hard this job was and all of its challenges.
We, as managers, had to project up the view of this project as being very difficult, very challenging, and try not to give even a hint of a rose-colored glasses perspective.
The flip side was that I needed to encourage this wonderfully talented group of people to do the best they could. They had to believe that this project was possible.
So we were on this balancing act and I found it very challenging for me to be kind of two-faced. One is to look up and be serious and the other is to look down and say, “We can do this.” Smiling was very difficult for almost three years.
How do you keep that spirit up? On Spirit’s landing day, the mood of the team was pretty tense. Our mouths were dry and our hands were wet. Understandably so.
I needed to do something to lighten things up. So, in this mode of let’s throw caution to the wind, I had to smile and relax. This is what we did. [Rob starts an audio recording of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”] We played this in the control room when the press cameras weren’t running! It actually worked. It certainly made me feel better. It really helped a lot, although the stress never did go away until after the second landing. It was an experience of a lifetime.
“Maintenance Call at 125 Million Miles”
The words “Sol 18” sends a shiver up a lot of people’s spines. Lots of emotions and memories are associated with Sol 18, most of them traumatic. The reason was that Sol 18 was the first day of the Spirit anomaly.
Part of what made it so traumatic was that it was different from the way things had been going so far. We had a spacecraft that was working much better than any of us had ever dared hope.
Sol 18 started out like a normal day, then our communication session cut off early. We went on through Sol 18 and had several other sessions that didn’t work as expected.
Fortunately, we had a really robust spacecraft and we had a fully functional redundant link on UHF, so we figured we were going to get a UHF pass that afternoon with [Mars] Odyssey and we’d get to see what happened. We waited for this pass ,and it didn’t happen. I was shocked.
Then we had an MGS [Mars Global Surveyor] pass the next morning where the spacecraft did talk to us but it was not decipherable. It was kind of like the lights were on but nobody was home.
It’s such a rollercoaster because you send the commands and then you make bets with people about when and if we would hear back. A lot of money exchanged hands during the anomaly period!
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if you can’t talk to your spacecraft and it can’t talk to you, you have a big problem! I called my husband and told him I wasn’t going to be home for a while. He asked me how was my day and I told him, “Not great.” He said, “Oh, really. Are you personally responsible for the loss of a $400 million national asset?”
Everybody on that team felt the same way I did. They felt personally responsible for fixing this problem.
We actually did get a signal at the end of Sol 18, just a carrier only, but one bit is so much more extraordinary than zero bits!
Sol 21 was Opportunity landing day. We thought we could get [Spirit’s] fault worked out if we could reboot the spacecraft without the flash memory, which we realized was the problem. I think it was best stated by Mark Alder, who, at the end of the day, said, “We have partial control of the spacecraft.” That made us all feel good even though we knew we had a lot of work ahead of us.
“Angst on Sol 20”
I think that a lot of people had this realization that the very next day, that Opportunity was barreling into Mars at 12,000 miles an hour. In the next few days, we could be in the situation where either we had recovered Spirit and Opportunity had successfully landed, or we had not recovered Spirit and wouldn’t be able to, and Opportunity would not successfully have landed. We would have gone from two rovers to zero rovers just like that! We were very concerned obviously that, after the years of work and the investment we had put into it, not to have anything come out of it.
We did recover the vehicle the next day. We were able to get it to reboot, and we knew that we had gone a long way to regaining control. I was able to go home and go to sleep. Like others, I didn’t sleep a whole lot before that. I came back for the Opportunity landing [which] was wildly successful. In that period of 24 to 36 hours or so, we went from having possibly nothing to having everything.
It was about two weeks later, on Sol 33, and we had completed recovery of the vehicle. We’d also just gotten a picture back. The picture was actually taken before the problem occurred on Sol 18. It was a color picture of the American flag on the Rock Abrasion Tool. The guys from New York City put a really nice American flag on the tool at the end of the arm. The arm would come up and we took a picture of the flag. That picture had been sitting in this troublesome flash memory for about two weeks.
We played the “Star-Spangled Banner” at that moment, and everyone in the room was standing and people were putting their hands at their chests, saluting, and watching. It was actually quite a moving moment. I knew then that we had it back.