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Mission Fantastic to Mars (Part 1)

August 10, 2004

From  a distance: Mars
From a distance: Mars
Mars -- the reddish orb that moves across the night sky against a background of seemingly fixed stars -- has beckoned to humans for thousands of years. In the middle of this image, which is a composite of many smaller images, is Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system.
Image credit: NASA/JPL
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From the start, the mission was a race against time

They made history in more ways than one.

Not just because they landed two robot geologists on Mars.

Not just because they provided conclusive evidence that water once flowed on the Red Planet.

The JPL team that sent two rovers to Mars this year made history because they completed in 3 1/2 years what mission planners usually complete in seven. They revived an ailing planetary exploration program that NASA had to rebuild following the catastrophic loss of two spacecraft en route to Mars in 1999. They did this despite knowing that landing on Mars is always an extreme challenge, particularly with such a short development schedule.

Theisinger at Mission Control
Theisinger at Mission Control
Pete Theisinger awaits a status report on NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers at mission control at JPL.
Image credit: NASA/JPL
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Closest Approach in 60,000 Years

Pete Theisinger, the original project manager, led an experienced group of planetary scientists and spacecraft engineers in pitching the project to NASA. "We figured, even though the launch is 37 months from now, what could go wrong?" he asked, to much laughter during a panel discussion hosted by the California Institute of Technology, JPL's managing institution.

The team's plan was to use hardware and software they had already used successfully on previous space missions. They had to move quickly to take advantage of the closest approach between Earth and Mars in 60,000 years.

"2003 was geometrically superb and could not be missed," said Theisinger. So superb, in fact, that after agreeing to fund their plan to use the same lander that had placed the Pathfinder rover on Mars in the mid-1990s, former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin wanted more.

Rovers before launch
Rovers before launch
NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity pose for the news media on February 10, 2003. In the foreground is the significantly smaller Sojourner rover, minus its scientific instruments.
Image credit: NASA/JPL
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NASA Ups the Ante

"We got a phone call asking, 'How much more would it cost for a second rover? You have 45 minutes to get back with us,'" recalled Theisinger.

Theisinger was the guy who answered to JPL and NASA top brass, the keeper of the purse strings when the project got funded, and the dispenser of the managerial glue that kept everyone on track. The consummate administrator, Theisinger makes sure to give credit to others, including all his team members and his wife for her moral support. NASA has already reassigned him to take the helm of the next Mars rover mission scheduled for launch in 2009.

Back at NASA, Goldin gave the orders that channeled the resources from NASA's budget to the two Mars rovers. With the funding in place, the JPL team officially was off and running.

Built to explore
Built to explore
If all went as planned, the solar panels, wheels, and scientific instruments on NASA's Mars rovers would unfold and lock into place after landing on the Red Planet.
Image credit: NASA/JPL
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Even the Best-Laid Plans ...

The key to their success was that they were a highly dedicated team of explorers who had a sense of humor about the daunting task ahead of them. Though they could not have known it at the time, that sense of humor would help pull them through some demanding times ahead.

Things went as planned for about five months. In October of 2000, they attended a preliminary design review, a technical meeting at which engineers, scientists, and managers discussed their progress and assessed whether their spacecraft would work. That's when the team discovered their payload wouldn't fit. Because the new Mars rovers would be carrying a bigger scientific toolkit and more computer equipment than their predecessor, they were bulkier and weighed more. The team needed to build a new frame of unfolding petals to carry them. It had to be two inches longer on each of its six sides and constructed from a lighter composite material. These changes were possible, but would make the job of getting to the launch pad even more challenging.

Again, they were off and running. But their worries were far from over.

Part 2 >>
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