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Mars Journal - Mars Exploration Rover Mission
March 6, 2004
An Hour in the Life of a Tactical Activity Planner #4
This entry continues my 'Hour in the Life of a Tactical Activity Planner' entries, and covers the time from 18:00-19:00 Mars Local Solar Time (LST), the fourth hour of my shift.
It's 18:00 LST and I walk up two floors to the Science Operations Working Group (SOWG) meeting room carrying my notebook, laptop, and lunch. I walk to the back of the room and tap a few controls on a small touch-screen. Instantly, the lights dim and six huge projection screens slowly descend from the ceiling. As the projectors whir to life, I walk along the long table in the back of the room. Each seat has a sign in front of it identifying the person who is expected to sit there. There's a seat for the Tactical Uplink Lead, the Mission Manager, the Rover Planner, and a few others. Technically, I'm supposed to sit in the chair labeled 'Tactical Activity Planner', but I drop my things beside a workstation with a sign resting on top that reads 'SAP Operator' and log into the computer. The SAP (Science Activity Planner) Operator is the person responsible for running SAP, the program that the scientists use to build their final plan for the sol. It can be an incredibly intense job, but when I'm on shift I don't want to be anywhere else.
I like running SAP during the SOWG meeting because there's no better way for me to become intimately familiar with the goals the science team has for the sol. This is extremely important because immediately after the SOWG meeting I have to convert those goals into a plan that can actually be accomplished on Mars.
Running SAP during the SOWG meeting is also a lot of fun for me. I have a special connection with the SAP software because I managed its development and wrote a lot of the code. It's a thrill for me to see my software used each day to build the science plan for the rovers and even more fun to operate the software myself. Any software engineer reading this can attest to the affinity that a developer has with his/her creation. It's an intense familiarity that comes with knowing everything that's going on 'under the hood' while they're using the software. When I click on a button in SAP, I know exactly what is going to happen next because I wrote the code that makes it happen! This familiarity also helps me get things done in SAP very quickly, an essential skill when the meeting really gets moving.
I'm opening up the latest images from the rover as members from the science team begin to arrive. They sit around a huge U-shaped table in the center of the room at seats labeled according to the instrument or scientific focus they represent. There are representatives for each of the 'Science Theme Groups' who are responsible for proposing activities that address a particular area of scientific investigation on Mars. For instance, the Soils and Physical Properties group proposes activities that will help us to understand the composition of the dirt on Mars while the Atmospheric group points our cameras upwards to study the martian sky. Representatives are also present for each of the rover instruments. At the center of the room is the SOWG Chairman. This is his meeting, and he's charged with the challenging task of getting all of the scientists present to agree on a plan for the next sol on Mars.
The SOWG Chairman today is John Grant, and he calls the meeting to order with a role call. I gulp down my drink and get ready for the flurry of activity that is about to begin. John calls on the Geology science theme group and asks them to describe the observations that they are proposing for the sol. Each theme group has already built plans using SAP before the meeting, so most of my work is opening these plans and integrating them. As the Geology group describes a series of panoramic camera images on rocks in the vicinity of the rover, I quickly click through the activities for these images in SAP, making modifications as other scientists ask questions and recommend changes. I'm also scrutinizing the activities myself, checking for any issues that would make it difficult for me to fit the activity into the plan I have to build after the meeting is over. I break into the discussion from time to time to ask questions and suggest modifications.
My wife often teases me because I'm unable to understand anything she says to me while I'm talking on the phone to someone. For some reason my brain just can't listen to the person on the phone and to her at the same time, no matter how hard I try. It's surprising, but for some reason I am able to listen to the discussion going on in the SOWG while reviewing the plan and making modifications to it, all at the same time. It's a good thing, too, because the scientists are almost constantly discussing things, and I'd have no hope of keeping up if I had to stop working on the plan in order to listen.
A lot of exciting work gets done in the SOWG meeting. It's during this meeting that the scientists really decide what they want to do on Mars. They have up to 2 hours to make these important decisions. That might sound like a long time, but it passes very quickly and before I notice, it is 19:00 Local Solar Time, and the meeting is half complete.