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Opportunity’s Hole-in-One

For the first time in 28 years, two robotic explorers are in operation simultaneously on Mars

by Michelle Evans


“This is clearly an E-ticket. That’s for sure!” exclaimed Pete Theisinger, Project Manager for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) program about two hours after MER-B, also knows as Opportunity, successfully arrived at Mars.


Two for two. Who would have believed it was possible? After the debacle of the twin loses of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander just four years ago, our track record at the red planet was not the best. Now, in the course of just three weeks our fortunes changed heavily toward the better. We now have five successes out of the last seven attempts.


On January 3rd, Spirit dropped into the giant Gusev crater and rolled to a stop, unfolded its solar panels, and rolled away (see O.C.Space, February 2004). A major glitch appeared and was worked through to put it back into excellent health. Then, on January 24, its twin, Opportunity, streaked through the thin Martian atmosphere, blazing a plasma trail high above both Olympus Mons and Vallis Marineris, before swinging on its parachute to be cut loose and bounce into a tiny crater on the opposite side of Mars at Meridiani Planun. Steve Squyres, Principal Investigator, exclaimed, “What has happened, is we scored a 300 million mile, interplanetary, hole-in-one.”


The Deep Space Network (DSN) stayed with the rover’s signal all the way through landing. Its signal even stronger than Spirit, as if Opportunity wanted to show up its older sibling.


NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe even commented on this. “It’s fascinating to see how these rovers are beginning to develop a personality of their own. What we’ve seen in Sprit is an irritation at starting to lose the attention of everybody involved. So it decided to raise a little bit of a stink, resembling a balky teenager who refused to come in at night or go to sleep; not responding to orders, commands, or requests. Feeling like frustrated parents, we’ve worked that through and, eventually, superior logic was employed and it’s now responding in a way that is favorable, just in time, hours before Opportunity.”

Soon after the successful landing, Sean went on to say, “What a night. As the old saying goes, it’s far better to be lucky than good. But, you know, the harder we work, the luckier we seem to get. This team is absolutely phenomenal. No one dared we would be batting a thousand on this. Yet this is a tremendous testimonial to how NASA, when really focused on an objective, can put every ounce of energy, effort, emotion, and talent to an important task. This is a truly remarkable achievement. This team is the best in the world. No doubt about it.”


Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) didn’t agree that luck had anything to do with the twin success. “For me, the second success is even sweeter than the first one. The reason is very simple. People could have said, ‘Well, they got lucky on one.’ But it’s hard to get lucky twice in three weeks. I think that they succeeded the old fashioned way: they were excellent, they were determined, and they worked very hard.”


Within the Von Karman auditorium at JPL, the place was packed with media, VIPs, and members of the MER team, all there to celebrate the second landing. Administrator O’Keefe kept his champagne tradition alive by pouring toasts to the team leaders at the front of the room, while congratulating all the people who made it possible.


The entire MER team made a long conga line as they paraded in front of the managers, slapping high-fives, yelling, and sharing the exuberance.


When it all calmed down, at least to a slightly lower level, Dr. Elachi came to the podium and announced that the scientists had found something very interesting on Mars that they wanted to show us right away. The giant screen flickered to life and we saw the rover pull away from the landing pad and then the camera panned down onto a computer-generated birthday cake in honor of O’Keefe’s January 26th birthday. He was especially surprised by the celebration when Dr. Elachi presented him with a Lego version of the rover.


To those of us present at JPL, it appeared that not since the Moon landings had there been such sustained interest in space exploration. A comet flyby, two rovers working on Mars, and a far-reaching new space policy from President George W. Bush.

The end of January brought a somber time in remembrance of Apollo 1 from 1967, the Challenger accident of 18 years ago, and the first anniversary of the Columbia. But, like with Apollo 1 and the amazing success of Apollo 11 just 30 months later, it seemed that the most recent tragedy had been turned into a new focus to do things right and get back to work.


The crew of Columbia were even honored at Super Bowl 38 on February 1; however, the crew slated to follow them into space, commanded by Eileen Collins was also there to remind us of our future. A simulated moonscape was unveiled and an astronaut planted an American flag on its surface in front of the hundreds of millions of people watching at the stadium in Houston, Texas, and television throughout the world.


Back on Mars, the rovers whirred away, taking scientific measurements and photographs, and sending them back to Earth, where JPL and NASA posted everything directly onto the Internet for all to see. In the three weeks between the first and second rover landings, the JPL site had received over four billion hits. New records were being set on an almost daily basis for e-traffic. This number was higher than for the entire previous year on all NASA web sites. If anyone still thought that the average person was not interested in exploration and space, they apparently just weren’t paying attention to what was happening in the real world.


Rob Manning, the EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) Manager, believes that the current program is an excellent way to excite the public about space. “It represents a wonderful cross-section of our country, and I think that’s something that Americans should be proud of, that there are people like this next door. They’re all around us. We shouldn’t forget that. It’s the kid who picks up a magazine early on and starts reading. It’s the young scientist, the people who have an incredible curiosity about how the world works. Those are the people who do this and that’s what makes us special as human beings. We should be proud of our accomplishment. Two exciting things happened in our solar system tonight, one on Mars, and one right here in Pasadena. I’m very pleased that I can report that we had a great night in this solar system of ours.”


The twin rover missions of Spirit and Opportunity have now taken on a new significance as a vanguard for eventual human exploration. Between the landings of the two robots, the whole outlook for the future changed. Human missions to Mars had been something NASA was not to talk about. Plans were drawn in secret and discarded at the first light of day. Now we are looking outward again.


“There is a quote that is in my office and I know it is in Sean’s office, by Teddy Roosevelt,” Dr. Elachi told us during the post-landing briefing. “It’s about daring to do great things. And that’s exactly what this team has been doing. That’s exactly what in NASA we do everyday. Today, and for the last three weeks, you have been observing exploration exactly as it happens. With its joy, its frustration, with its glory. But that’s what exploration is about. If you look in the book of history, if you look at what exploration Cook, Shackleton, and Lewis and Clark did; despite all the preparation you do, what counts is how you face adversity when it is in front of you, and what the team does when you face adversity. This team has faced it with resolve, with courage, and with ingenuity. That’s what makes this team unique, and that’s what gives them the right to do exploration for our country.”


Sean O’Keefe explained that, “the President’s statements on January 14th clearly are an expression of a vision, a statement of direction, a strategy that is designed to be affordable to do these kinds of missions. It’s about exploration [and is] well within our capacity as a nation to do.”