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Mars Journal - Mars Exploration Rover Mission
Journal for Jeff Norris

January 27, 2004 - Opportunity Arrives!

The Opportunity Landing really snuck up on me. I guess it's because I worked basically non-stop for the first couple of weeks after Spirit's landing and then collapsed into a few days off last week with a cold. I remember waking up on Tuesday and realizing with something of a start 'Hey, we're putting another one of these on Mars this weekend!'

I was at JPL for the Spirit landing, but this time I decided to go with my wife and daughter to a landing party at Pasadena City College organized for the families of the mission team. When we arrived, I was amazed by the size of the crowd. We easily filled what was probably a 2000 seat auditorium. Projected at the front of the auditorium was a video feed from the cruise operations facility at JPL and a program counting down the time to various critical events for entry, decent, and landing.

As the time for landing drew nearer, the crowd quieted down and listened intently as the Flight Director polled the subsystems for their final pre-landing status. I felt the same butterflies in my stomach that I felt three weeks earlier as the poll completed and everyone at JPL and at the landing party waited for the 'show' to begin.

'Opportunity has entered the Martian atmosphere!' announced Wayne Lee, and the crowd erupted, then immediately quieted as the seconds ticked down towards the next critical event.

It was an amazing 6 minutes. I sat and thought of how many people around the world were sitting like me, on the edge of their chairs, listening for the echoes of a performance that was happening millions of miles away. Opportunity was quite literally singing us a song, transmitting a series of special tones across the void to tell us how its terrifying descent was progressing.

'I'm slowing down!' sang Opportunity. 'Accel tone 3' said JPL.

'Faster now' sang Opportunity. 'Accel tone 4' said JPL.

Of course, the concert had actually already ended. As we strained to hear the next note in Opportunity's solo, it had in fact already touched down on the Martian soil and was gently rolling to a stop. All we could do was wait to hear what had happened.

'I've opened my parachute!' sang Opportunity. 'We have parachute deployment,' said JPL.

Each event was met with cheers and applause, cut shorter and shorter as the announcements of critical events began to happen one on top of another. The airbags inflated and the rockets fired with everyone cheering through it all. You could just make out Wayne Lee announcing that Opportunity was bouncing on the surface, and then all you could hear was cheering. The JPL operations room was in chaos ' people were jumping up and down, hugging, crying, and with good reason. Over three years of work had brought two rovers to Mars, and an amazing journey still lay ahead.

January 21, 2004 - An Hour in the Life of a Tactical Activity Planner: #2

This entry continues my 'Hour in the Life of a Tactical Activity Planner' entries, and covers the time from 16:00-17:00 Mars Local Solar Time (LST), the second hour of my shift.

It is 16:00 LST, and I'm about halfway done with a skeleton plan for the rover. Jason Fox (my shadow) and I are the only ones in the room, with the exception of a Rover Planner or two drifting in and out occasionally. Most of the Integrated Sequencing Team hasn't arrived yet, or they're tending to other duties elsewhere on the floor. It's quiet, but that's only because I've learned to tune out the constant humming from the fans on the dozen or so computers packed side-by-side on the tables that line the outer wall of the room.

The pseudo-silence is broken from to time to time by the VOCA (Voice Operational Communications Assembly) sitting a few feet away from me. It looks like a big fancy telephone, and they can be found all over the place in the operations facility. The operations team uses the VOCAs to keep in touch with one another ' it's like a huge conference call that never ends. I'm frankly intimidated by sheer number of buttons on these things, so I tend to just walk across the building to find the person I need to talk to. Still, I like to listen to the ongoing discussion among the rest of the team as they analyze the data that has just arrived from the rover. At about 16:15, the Tactical Downlink Lead (TDL) is polling the team for their assessment of the rover state. This usually sounds something like this:

'Mobility, TDL''
'Go ahead TDL.'
'What's the distance on the last traverse''
'We show just under 3 meters driven, which agrees with predicts.'
'Copy that. Anything else to report''
'Ok. Power, TDL'

' and so on. The teams that the Tactical Downlink Lead is talking to also post detailed downlink reports that I like to skim during the beginning of my shift. Many of them also provide electronic files that I use to build the skeleton plan for the rover. For instance, the Power team provides a file that describes the state of the rover's batteries at the time of our last communication and the Thermal team generates a file that tells me how much we would need to heat a particular motor before using it at a particular time of day. Today, this process goes smoothly and I'm done with the skeleton plan at around 16:20.

At 16:30, I walk across the building to the 'Fishbowl' ' a windowed conference room adjoining the main control room that you always see on NASA TV. This is where we hold the Engineering Leads Tagup Meeting. At this meeting, the Tactical Downlink Lead presents the status of the rover to the Mission Manager, Tactical Uplink Lead, myself, and a few others. It's convenient to have this meeting in the Fishbowl because we can quickly grab people out of the control room if questions come up. Today, the Tactical Downlink Lead is Jackie Lyra, and she quickly steps through each subsystem on the rover, assigning every one the status 'Green', which puts everyone in a very good mood. There are just a few restrictions on what the scientists are allowed to do on the next sol, and I make a note of these since I have to be careful that I don't break any of those rules while I'm working on the plan. Jackie moves on to the issues list, where every problem that has occurred in operations is documented and tracked until it is resolved. Today, one of the new issues was reported by the Thermal team in regard to something that I produced the previous sol, so I excuse myself from the meeting at about 17:00 in order to investigate the issue.

January 18, 2004 - An Hour in the Life of a Tactical Activity Planner: #1

As a Tactical Activity Planner, I work for 10 Mars hours each day I come to work. I do a lot of things in that time, too many to list in a single update in this journal. So, I'm going to write a series of entries, each describing an hour of my shift. Each will be a mixture of what happened on a particular day and general descriptions of my job. Consider each of them 'An Hour in the Life of a Tactical Activity Planner'. Here's the first, covering the first hour of my shift:

Sol 14, 15:00 ' 16:00 Mars Local Solar Time

It was hard to wake up so early today. My daughter is teething and had a hard time sleeping last night, which means that I also had a hard time sleeping until my wife took pity on me and sent me to sleep in the guest room with earplugs (thanks darling!) It was dark and a little cold as I made my way down the hill from the parking area to the operations building. Between the cool air and running up the steps to the Spirit floor, I was wide awake when I arrived at the door into the main operations area.

Lately, arriving at work has been a lot of fun. Every day, the first person I meet has greeted me with good news. This time it was Science Downlink Coordinator Bob Anderson, who informed me that the first spectrum acquired by the Mossbauer on Mars was flawless and the team was thrilled. I dropped by my office to hang up my coat, take my laptop out of my briefcase, and grab my procedures notebook. I carry these two things everywhere I go throughout my 10 hour shift.

I spend most of my day in the Sequencing Mission Support Area. It's a medium-sized room just down the hall from my office and is nearly always crowded. You probably haven't seen this room on television, but it's where the Integrated Sequencing Team (of which I'm a member) does their work to build the plan that the rover executes each day.

I usually head straight to the sequencing room when I arrive, but today I was immediately grabbed by a scientist who needed help determining whether an interesting piece of soil, currently underneath the rover solar panels, would be visible if we rolled forward 50 centimeters. This sort of thing happens fairly often because I led the development of the tool that the scientists spend most of their time using. I usually have the time to answer a few questions at the beginning of my shift, but once I get into the middle of it I'm completely consumed by my responsibilities as a Tactical Activity Planner.

After helping that scientist get the answer he needed, I walked back to the sequencing room. My shadow, Jason Fox, was busy analyzing data from the previous sol. Early in the mission, many operations jobs are double-staffed with a primary and shadow person. The primary does his or her job as usual while the shadow observes, offers suggestions, and handles any extra tasks that come up. This reduces the load on the primary and helps to train the shadow so that he or she will be prepared to act as primary in the future. Jason has had no trouble keeping himself busy ' he spends a lot of time double-checking my results and analyzing data from the tools we use.

The first task I face as a Tactical Activity Planner is the construction of a skeleton plan for the rover that outlines the basic things we know the rover has to do that day. Generally, this includes communications with Earth and a few other engineering-related activities. Finishing the skeleton plan generally rounds out the first hour of my shift.

January 12, 2004 - Mars Time all the Time

Monday, January 12: Spirit Sol 10

I'm tired today. It seems like everyone is. You've probably heard something by now about the fact that we're all working "Mars time" here. Just in case you haven't, the reason that I'm tired is that a Mars day is about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. In order to make sure that the rover stays busy every day, we work while it sleeps through the Martian night. Unfortunately, this means that I have to stay at work about 40 minutes later each day, all the way around the clock.

What you might not have heard is that as soon as you start living on Mars time, Earth time stops making any sense. For example, all of our daily meetings during operations are scheduled in Mars time. This means that the meeting time on Earth is changing every day. For instance, an important science meeting happens every day at 18:00 Mars time, but today that meant 5:22 AM and tomorrow that means 6:02 AM. Next Thursday it's at 11:58AM. It's so hard to keep track of our meetings that we have a special piece of software developed by Ames Research Center that displays our schedule in both time systems. I'd be completely lost without it.

It gets worse. Yesterday, I asked my colleague "Are you going to attend the science planning meeting tomorrow morning'" Confused, he asked "Well, I'm going to attend the science planning meeting tonight. Is there one tomorrow morning too'" After further discussion we discovered that we were talking about the same meeting, but he was planning on staying awake until that meeting while I was planning to go to bed and wake up for that meeting. The meeting was in my "morning" but in his "evening", even though we're not working terribly different shifts! After that meeting, I ran into a few colleagues in the hall and asked where they were headed. One person considered it "nighttime" and was heading home to go to bed. Two considered it "morning". I considered it "lunchtime". So, there are really three time systems here: Earth time, Mars time, and one more that depends on which of your waking hours you actually choose to work.

You're probably beginning to see why a lot of people on this project have purchased special watches that run on Mars time. It's the only thing that makes any sense.

Well, I'd better go home and eat some dinner. Did I mention that it's 2 o'clock in the afternoon'

January 8, 2004 - Life after Spirit landed. . .

Thursday, January 8: Spirit Sol 6

During my wedding ceremony five years ago, my mother-in-law Bonnie read a short piece of prose about "marking time". The message was that the truly major events in life sharply divide our memories into "before" and "after" that event. For me, there is before and after my daughter Vivian was born, before and after I married Kamala, before and after I graduated from college, and a few others. This mission doesn't come close to being as important to me as my family, but its success has added a new "before" and "after" to my life.

Before Spirit landed, I devoted four and a half years of my career to the development of robot operations software. I came to JPL right after finishing my Masters degree in Computer Science at MIT and immediately began working on the Mars Polar Lander mission and the FIDO research rover. Six months later, I got a taste of how harsh the enterprise of space exploration can be when the Mars Polar Lander was lost. Literally and figuratively, there is nothing like it on Earth. Imagine that you are about to graduate from college or high school. You've spent years slaving over your books, and you've finally earned the right to put on a robe and accept a diploma in recognition of all your work. Then, as you ascend the stage and approach the podium, a person steps in front of you and says "Stop! First you have to roll this die. If you get a high enough number, you can have your diploma. If you don't, you'll have to start all over again." Even though I had only spent six months working on Mars Polar Lander, it taught me that in this business everything you've worked for can be lost in single, fiery instant. Not diminished or delayed, but utterly destroyed. No matter how hard we try, there will always be an element of chance in exploration that cannot be completely controlled: the Unknown.

After the loss of the Mars Polar Lander, I worked for two years on the FIDO rover. While on that task I helped develop a lot of technology that we would eventually use in the development effort I led for the Mars Exploration Rover mission, and I got to know many of the people that I work with on this mission. At 27 years old, I feel that I have invested my career in this mission, which hopefully explains why its success means so much to me.

So far, my life "after Spirit landed" has been a series of spontaneous celebrations amidst a sea of work. My office is right down the hall from the control room, and a couple times every day I hear an eruption of applause and cheers (and on at least one occasion, a certain noted scientist sprinting by my door, shouting good news to everyone on the floor). Most of the time, I can't help but stop what I'm doing to see what new hurdle Spirit has cleared. I don't think I've ever worked this hard in my life. Even though my part in the operation of Spirit doesn't begin until we get off the lander, there seems to be no end of things to do. My wife says that I'm not working "Mars Time" - I'm just working "All the Time". Today I'm enjoying the second of two days off, but I have to say I do miss the occasional sounds of cheering from down the hall.

I certainly plan to join in the cheering when Spirit finally leaves the lander next week and puts its wheels onto the Martian soil. On that day, I'll begin my work as a Tactical Activity Planner, helping to build the plan that the rover will execute on each sol (Martian day). The scientists will hand me a list of detailed goals that they would like the rover to accomplish, and I'll spend several hours integrating them into a plan that the rover can execute. When I'm done, I'll hand that plan to a team of engineers who will construct the final command sequences that are sent to the rover. My job is a little like working on a puzzle with oddly shaped pieces, except that I have to find a way to fit the pieces together without breaking any of a bunch of rules. I'm rarely able to "solve" the puzzle because the scientists are supposed to give me too many pieces. I'm really just trying to fit as many of the important pieces into the final product as I can.

next month
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