Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Day In the Life, bSol 2669 (and a Crumpler Countdown [-up])

The days that I'm the TAP/SIE on tactical duty, I’m usually the first one in to the MER-B sequencing room. It’s partly because I might be carpooling with my roommate, who likes to leave before 7 in the morning, though I usually avoid carpooling on these days because of the 50-50 potential of the day going long. Really, it's mostly because I’m a morning person anyways, which scares people. 

The first thing I do when I walk into the sequencing room is turn on the lights. By default they come on at full tilt, and I hate it. I use the dimmer controls to bring them down to something bearable — 10 or 20 percent of normal. (Really.) I’m one of those people who hates bright lights, one of those people who has to stare at a computer screen most of the day, one of those people that downloads F.lux. I’m more at peace with the lights on low.

This is all the result of my early and consistent use of a computer in my life. The people who didn’t grow up with computers — you know, those old timers — tend to like to read things on paper. (One of my friend’s all-time biggest pet peeves: “When someone who doesn’t understand the Internet asks me to print out a web page for them instead of linking it to them. You know, like a smart person would.”) For this whole "reading" thing, they need more light. For this, I reluctantly allow them to beam up the lights in the back of the room, leaving my corner — the TAP/SIE's corner — just dim enough. 

Thank the gods for multiple light sets.

Ah yes, the TAP/SIE corner. Farthest from the entrance to the room, it’s place from where small-voiced requests emanate throughout the course of the day: “RPs, I need you to redeliver your sequences. You broke my stuff.”; “TDL, what’s the magic sol?”; “Where is the coffee intern?”; etc.

I think it’s best this way, with the TAP/SIE all by his (her) lonesome, the RPs dominating the other side of the room, and the TUL and Mission Manager piloting the room from the center conference table. The TDL is the floater: they run back and forth between the other engineers’ offices, their own computer terminal in the corner adjacent to mine, and the center table. Everybody gets their space. Everybody is happy.

Today was just the same. Door open, lights on, butt in chair. I sit down in my corner and set up shop. Laptop -- on and cranking. Phone -- headphones in with some Derek and the Dominoes to start my day. Notebooks -- out and ready for action. Go time.

Wait, hold your horses — an email from the Mars Express mission planning folks just came in. I’ve got to generate some sequence products for them, so it’s off to the races for 20 minutes. 

I come jogging (ahem… figuratively — I sprained my ankle pretty badly a week ago and I’m on crutches, which gets me lots of sympathy and rides to and from the parking lot) back in to MER world, still the only one in the room. Somewhat to my surprise, today is a slide sol. Our relayed downlink from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft has a bit more latency on it than we're used to for "nominal" planning days. Remember, we don’t like to start our day until we know something about the state of the rover. Odyssey is collecting its own science data, too, which the Odyssey team is always kind to remind us — they’re not just there to relay Oppy’s data. The advantage is that we’re starting an hour later than the usual 8:30am, which means more sleep for the humans. The disadvantage is mostly felt by the remote science folks in the Central and Eastern time zones, where they get out by late dinner time on a normal planning day as is. 

Kevin, a recently-certified Senior Rover Planner (he says, “I can now drive without adult supervision”), comes strolling in to the sequence room. He’s not on tactical today, but he is the MOB/IDD downlink analysis goony for the day. “How much data are we getting back?” he asks. I have no idea; I wasn’t on tactical the day before and didn’t have the number in my head. I’m more peeved that he made me take off my headphones, as “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe His Corn” is playing and I hate having that song interrupted. Hate

Noting my hint — a shrug of ignorance — he instead looks at a plot that’s been placed on the center table, and it tells him the answer: 30 megabits in the first chunk, 20 or so after that. The first 30 will contain most of our critical engineering health and safety data, as well as the high-priority images in the assumed drive direction (southeast-ish). Good enough for him. The downlink is coming in right as he scuttles out of the room to go… do whatever it is that MOB/IDD does. 

Soon, Paolo comes in with his "I'm RP today" stride. With him is Albert, today’s SOWG Chair. It's rare to have the SOWG chair in the room. When we do have a SOWG chair right next to us — in a chair, of all places — it keeps us on our toes. He also wore the SOWG Chair hat for the two previous planning days, so he's in the loop. He knows what's up. He's got ideas. Oh, the ideas.

Yestersol’s drive (which, actually, happened only a few hours ago, since it’s 16:50:00 local solar time for Oppy as I type this) landed us on one of the last bands of outcrop before landfall at Endeavour Crater. “A 120-meter approach drive,” Albert laughs. Usually when approaching a band of outcrop or any other target for IDD work, it takes 2 or 3 drives — therefore 2 to 3 sols or 2 to 3 planning days — to land us right where we want. We got lucky today and ended right on top of the outcrop without the need to do additional bump and approach drives. Excellent.

The Navcams and Hazcams have been processed by now (9:15am). Albert was right: that Front Hazcam shows us the outcrop right under our feet.

I enhanced the contrast on this puppy to make Endeavour "pop" out. Oh, by the way, our updated Crumpler Countdown is:

0.50km, 97.8%

125 meters of driving yestersol. We can almost taste Endeavor. 

Our TULs — one prime, one shadow — come in. “Sounds like an IDD day,” they say. They know. They get it, too. Matt Golombek, today’s LTP, comes in next: “Holy cow. A 120-meter approach drive?! Precision if I ever saw it.” The irony of the word "precision" is not lost on him.

The day starts with the Engineering Tagup. I'm not required to be at this meeting, but I keep my ears perked. Meanwhile, I set up my work environment: 14 Unix terminals, 1 Mozilla window, 1 Firefox window (I know), 4 standalone applications, and not enough coffee. It takes about 10 minutes to get it all in lockstep, to get the crank ready for turning after the upcoming SOWG meeting.

The half hour to 10am zips by. It's time for the SOWG meeting. A few PowerPoint charts later, we get Albert's summary: “The three words I’m taking from Matt’s LTP report are: ‘MIs, go wild.’” Meaning, it's a day for placing the IDD on the outcrop and using the Microscopic Imager. According to our database, it's been precisely 58 sols since we last used the MI in this same way (if at all) — sol 2611.

What comes out of the plan is simple, in a sense:

1) MI stack and stereo imaging
2) MB "touches" in between
3) Place the APXS on that damned rock and collect data for as long as we can
4) Get some Pancam images

The devil's in the details, though. And everywhere else. We had to tinker with the activities, the deep sleep duration, and some of the Pancam observations to get the power situation under control. We nuked a Pancam activity to survive the night — we tried a "wake up at 8am LST and do some stuff" kind of thing, and our modeling tools told us, "No." 

Hey, look, a Pancam has come down! The Pancam images usually have lower priority than the Navcams, but they give us range data for the terrain up to about 100 meters. They are what make long blind drives possible. For today, we don't need them... but tomorrow, they'll be handy.

The day passes rather uneventfully. In this sequence, the RPs are shooting for some five different targets on the ground — Gibralter 1-4 and an extra test spot — with some stuff in between. Enough tool changes to make you forget the right-hand rule and everything you learned about coordinate systems in under 5 minutes. During the walkthrough, the animation follows the RP's cursor in the command-building utility (RoSE), and we get all glossy-eyed.

Despite the large number of "backbone" and "helper" sequences coming from the RPs, and despite some other curve balls thrown in by the TDL, I expect sequence integration to go poorly. This is one of the most tenuous parts of my job, where I stitch together everybody's individual sequences into a single integrated sequence for uplink to Oppy. A few command-line Perl and C-shell utilities do most of the heavy lifting for me, but they spit out a lot of messages. You have to know the precise meaning of them, what is ok to ignore, what is ok to scratch your head over and drag the TUL into (number one rule in ops: if you don't know, ask), and what is definitely not ok to ignore. Of all the longest tactical planning days of my life, 90% or so of them were long because of sequence integration. Too many of the secrets and myths and project lore have been lost in the automation scripts that we've written. We often have to go back into our uplink reports database and search for arcane command-line warning phrases or keywords to see what the tactical team did the last time some error came up.

But today, it all gets stitched together without issue. Our sequence modeling and flight rule checking tool, SEQGEN (developed at JPL), seems to like what we've fed her.

This has been way too easy. Something's wrong.

We get to our next meeting, Sequence Report Walkthrough. We're nearing the end of it — this is going way too swimmingly for an IDD day — when, suddenly, Albert says, "Can you back up to the second MI stack?"


"I see a [error]," he says.


"Oh, crap," says our RP team, "We screwed that one up."

A simple fat-finger and some room-wide dyslexia just threw a screwdriver in our day.

"Ok, redeliver," say our TULs.

At this stage, "redelivery" means I have to undo all the stitch and modeling work I've already done, and then do it all again. But, hey, this two-fold lesson is one we learn a few times a week:

1) This is why we have sequence walkthrough meetings.
2) Life is tough.

The redelivery goes well. We see the fix. We're happy with the fix. We move on. Life is well. Everybody goes (limps, for me) home.


Today's wrench-in-the-gears was but a hiccup. In light of the 120-meter pseudo-approach drive, and in light of the beautiful MI images we'll get on the ground in a few days, and in light of everything else going well, it's not even a blip on the teams radar. They've adapted to these things. I, on the other hand, am still getting used to these "hiccups" after even a full year of doing this job. I get this sense of panic, a touch of shame, a bit of consternation when something — however small — goes wrong. Sometimes you catch the team on the wrong day, when our collective tolerance level is low. We get frustrated and we continue to make mistakes.

Today, though, was not one of those days. Smooth.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Endeavour Countdown (-up), bSol 2666

0.65km (95.5%)

The drive on sol 2664 was about 148 meters in length, giving us some spectacular new images, like this Pancam mosaic:

Figure 1: Pure, unadulterated awesome.

That small crater to the left (below the inset) has been named Chikyu Crater. The drive that we sequenced today for sol 2667 will give us another 100 meters or so, shooting us past Chikyu and placing us (hopefully) on some outcrop. The science team has expressed the desire to perhaps get some IDD work in on this outcrop, since it's some of the last we'll ever see in Meridiani.

As we approach, most of Cape York will be to the rover's right (image left -- remember, she's driving backwards!). Sol 2667's Navcam imaging will include a complete 360 to see what we can nab along the way.

In other news: This poor TAP/SIE hurt his ankle. Everyone give him sympathy. Now.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Where We Stand Now — Current Rover Status

Right! So! Ok! Time for something to chew on.

Status of Opportunity: Fat and happy. Minus the fat (her diet is mostly carbohydrates and protein). Also minus the happy (she's a robot, she has no emotions but cold-hearted reason.)
The more technical way of saying it: She's GREEN.

Since it's the topic of interest to the audience, I'll mention two important milestones have been achieved just within the last week:

1) Oppy crossed the 20-mile odometer mark. That's 32186.88 meters. The drive that achieved this — sol 2658's drive of 125.2 meters pushed her past this mark, and ended at the 32207.63-meter mark.
2) Oppy is approximately 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) from the official "landfall" at Endeavour Crater.

Number 2 is an item that has been on the team's radar for quite some time. There are several interesting items that we must know about this crucial "status item." First, it's somewhat ambiguous: the crater's edge is not well-defined; and it's dependent on the definition of the so-called "Pink Path." Since the departure from Santa Maria Crater in March, the Pink Path has been a strong focus in long-term planning. As we truck along in tactical operations, the scientists and mission planners constantly refine this Pink Path to define, when we get to some given spot, where we ought to drive. It is focused on avoiding obstacles (think of the "Purgatories" that caused the team to make Oppy drive west — away from Endeavour — a few hundred sols ago) and on science targets (think of the infamous "Approach Crater").

Continuous ouches here and nudges there have caused some headaches — the RPs end up with multiple Pink Path sources from which to plan drives — but these headaches are few. This Pink Path is not a straight line, so calculating the distance to Endeavour is a little more Arduous. The coolest bit, though, is Ohio State's (led by Ron Li) calculation of this distance as well as the "countdown" to landfall. After every drive, they plot the ending position of the rover and the "percent complete" number. This second number is the percentage of the distance (via the Pink Path — not as-the-bird-flies) between Victoria and Endeavour. Really cool to watch that number go down. This number, displayed with the distance left, gives us the infamous "[Larry] Crumpler Countdown." Currently…

Crumpler Countdown (-up) to Endeavour (07/20/11): 1.0km, 95.2%

Yeah, boy! Until landfall — a month or so, depending on whether or not one is Steve Squyres ("pedal to the metal") — I will update the Crumpler Countdown after each and every drive. By the way, in the queue for sol 2662: 55 meters. 

(Feels a little low, right? We've been blowing by with drives of 120+ meters in the last few sols, so what gives? For sol 2662, it was a combination of the science team wanting to stop short for the next crater set [Stu: it's named Mariner 9! They have a name!] and being limited by the data that had been downlinked by the time the drive needed to be planned.)

The only other really important engineering status item — thought I can feel the rest of the engineers itching to say something about their subsystem — is power:

Power is an item that we constantly model and watch. So much so that it is a critical-path tactical operations decision point. (I often wonder how many lingo terms I can put into a single sentence. My current record is 12.) As the Opportunity Updates webpage tells us, on sols 2627 and 2628, Oppy benefitted from a series of dust cleanings. We were able to support overnight (Mars time) relay communications with the Mars Odyssey orbiter, a rare oddity; we always get the relay in the afternoon (Mars time), but the chance to get back roughly twice the data is always great. The problem, though… Tau (atmospheric opacity) is on its way up as is expected for this time of the Martian year. The reduced dust on the arrays roughly cancels the effect of the dusty air, so we're currently only supporting standard, single-relay operations per sol.

There are the usual concerns of data management (how much is onboard? how much has been sent? how much can we delete? how much will we be using? how much will we be downlinking), thermal (more pre-drive heating, less pre-relay activity), and actuator wear-and-tear, but we'll tackle these tactically and as we run into them.

This blog is about to take a head-first dive into the tactical deep: I've actually been on vacation in Colorado since last Thursday, and I've been popping these posts out from a comfortable couch! Next Monday, when I return to JPL for the daily grind, I've got myself 3 tactical shifts next week. 

Boom-boom-boom, 1-2-3, right in a row. 

It'll be a little crazy. I can feel it already. I'll have to brush off my 10-day-worn skills.

Until then, a few more days of vacation and 16 hours of driving through sandy nothingness.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Where We Stand Now — Terms and Definitions

(Literally, right now, I'm sitting.)

I'm making the uninformed assumption that my audience consists solely of two types of people:

1) Those who know a lot about MER
2) Those who don't know a lot about MER

For the former: This post will move slow and patience will be rewarded; polish off your skimming skills. For the latter: Time to put your learnin' hats on.

There are, then, two things I want to talk about at this point:

1) Terms and definitions — Engineers live in a world of acronyms, initialisms, and otherwise shortened words. By virtue of the nature of a robotic lander or rover mission, there are many… interesting… ones.
2) Current rover status — Self-explanatory.

These will be split between 2 posts, since the first is rather… big.

Let us begin Operation "LEARN ABOUT MACHINES ON OTHER PLANETS." (Shouting required.)


Terms and Definitions
I will keep this one short. Any other terms and definitions that come up in subsequent posts will have a convenient, if hurried, description.
Sol: A Martian day. In Earth time, it is equivalent to 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds, a ratio of 1.027. This small but significant difference is has been a source of pain and suffering for all MER landers and rovers. 
Nominal/Restricted/Slide/Tight (planning modes): This will take some increased wordage. EVERYBODY TAKE A DEEP BREATH. [I deem a carriage return is necessary here]

Pretend that you're a rover. Also pretend that you have solar arrays. It follows that you like to do things during the day when the Sun can directly provide power to your instruments, driving system, heaters, and flight computer. (Or maybe you're a super-rover and you don't need any of that sunlight nonsense. In that case, we call you "the Mars Science Lab.") It then follows that your activities — science and engineering both — are "slaved" to the constraints of the Martian day. 

The similarity in the length of Earth days and Mars days is somewhat of a blessing here, if you're a human operator. You can plan a day ahead while the previous plan is executing, and you can do it all on (something very similar to) the Earth clock. However, that it's a similarity — not an equivalence — is also your Achilles' heel. The 2.7% difference means a drift between Earth and Mars times by that much — almost 40 minutes — every Earth day. Therefore, local solar time on Earth and Mars drift with respect to one another.

(This is a vast oversimplification of time systems for planets.)

So. Right. During the MER prime mission, the MER team worked on the Martian clocks — regular tactical and operations shifts slid by 40 minutes each Earth day. For subsequent extended missions after September 2004, the tactical team created something called "Modified Earth Time" to begin shifting back to Earth time, still planning the rovers' activities in Martian time but constraining shifts to Earth time. Only by the 3rd (and beyond) extended missions in 2005 did they shift to a modified Earth time kind of schedule, with tactical planning only occurring, at most, 5 days a week.

This, then, begs the question: Doesn't this create problems?

Well, yes. But for each problem, the MER team creates a solution. In this case — modified Earth time, 5 days a week — they created several planning "modes"…
Nominal: During Earth day, it is (approximately) Mars night. We plan 1 sol at a time, with the uplink products created just in time to uplink them when the rover wakes up the next Martian morning. At the start of each tactical shift — 8:30am Pacific time — we know the state of the rover for the most critical activities and therefore can accurately plan the next set without trouble. 
Slide: Martian time is drifting! Hold on to your hats! The time at which we uplink is approximately the same every sol, and this is creeping "away" from us in one sense. Therefore, the time at which we know the post-critical-activities state of the rover is also slipping away from us. Therefore, we must slide our start time for building the next sol's plan. We can still plan one sol at a time, and shifts start as late as 12:30pm PST.
Restricted: Now, local solar time on Mars, to which rover activities are slaved, has slipped too much and the time of day on Earth when we would know the state of the rover well enough to plan the next sol's worth of activities is now past our team-imposed limit (12:30pm PST). It's "modified Earth time," remember, and we like to be at work during normal human working hours. Mars day and Earth day are approximately aligned. What we do is "slip backward" — in one sense — and plan multiple sols at once, up to 3 if necessary. By the next planning session — up to 3 days away in Earth time — we don't actually have the latest state of the rover from the latest sol planned. This means any critical activities like driving or instrument arm deployment need to be planned accordingly.

Tight: Now, Mars night is approaching Earth day again, but they're just far enough away from each other that we deem our planning day — a 1-sol plan, by the way — "tight." This means we have limited time in our tactical shift to get the plan ready for the next uplink to the rover.

There are many, many, many subtleties and variables in determining what type each planning shift will be. I have barely scratched the surface here.

Okay, more terms and defs! Science payloads, locked and loaded…
IDD: Instrument Deployment Device. It contains the in-situ science payloads, the ones that require touching the environment — dust, rock, soil, etc. Incidentally, a really cool arm. Incidentally, strong enough to break itself. Incidentally, its "shoulder" actuator is broken. Rarely used, though watch out for increased activity during the Endeavour campaign.
APXS: Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer. Does… science. Commonly used.
MI: Microscopic Imager. Does… really tiny pictures. Rarely used.
MB: Mössbauer Spectrometer. Does… science. Rarely used.
RAT: Rock Abrasion Tool. Does… drilling. Rarely used.
Ecam/Navcam: Engineering/Navigation Camera. Does… engineering and navigation camera stuff. Used almost every sol.
Pancam: Panoramic Camera. Does… panoramic and scientific imaging. All those really pretty pictures? This bad boy, right here. Used almost every sol.
Mini-TES: Mini Thermal Emission Spectrometer. Does… science. Currently not used.
Some planning tools that you'll see referenced every now and then:
Maestro: Science activity planner and image viewer. Publicly available.
MAPGEN: Mixed-initiative Activity Plan GENerator. Integrates science plans from Maestro and engineering plans from the tactical team into a high-level resource modeling scheme. It is a spinoff of another JPL-developed tool, APGEN, combining both algorithmic (time- and logic-dependent) and non-deterministic (constraint-based) planning methods. 
SEQGEN: SEQuence GENerator. Command-level expansion and modeling tool developed by JPL. 

And the tactical team on the uplink side…
TUL: Tactical Uplink Lead. The person in charge. The TUL has authority in making tactical decisions over all persons, including the SOWG chair (see below), unless the decision can harm the rover, in which case the Mission Manager can supersede their authority. The TUL is very experienced on the MER project and requires much training.
MM: Mission Manager. The second person in charge. They are, almost always, the most experienced person on the uplink team. Most MMs have been around since Prime Mission. They are trained to see the "meta-problem," to poke and prod the TUL and TAP/SIE and provide oversight.
TAP/SIE: Tactical Activity Planner and Sequence Integration Engineer. This is what I am. The TAP/SIE is the least experienced member on the team, but (ironically) is one of the most critical links in the uplink chain. Anybody hired onto the MER tactical uplink team starts as a TAP/SIE, shadowing certified TAP/SIEs until they can "drive" the uplink process themselves. The end result of the TAP/SIE's work is the integrated sequence of all science, drive, and IDD activities, ready to be uplinked to the rover.
RP: Rover Planner. Two are on shift each planning day. The end result of the RPs' work is the sequence of all drive and IDD activities; these get delivered to the TAP/SIE for integration with the rest of the planned activities.
PUL: Payload uplink lead. For each instrument, there is a PUL. The end result of the PULs' work is the sequence of all activities related to their instrument; these get delivered to the TAP/SIE for integration with the rest of the planned activities, just like the RP sequences.
And the tactical team on the downlink side…
TDL: Tactical Downlink Lead. Collects the downlinked data from the rover system, analyzes it, and provides engineering sequence deliveries to support the uplink process. They also collect input from subsystem engineers, like the telecom and thermal guys, in the context of plan current in the process of being built by the uplink team.
PDL: Payload Downlink Lead. Collects the downlinked data from their particular instrument and analyzes it.
MOB/IDD: Mobility/IDD. Usually an RP as well, though not for that particular tactical shift. Collects the downlinked data from the mobility (drive) and IDD activities.
And the science team core…
SOWG Chair: Science Office Working Group Chair. They are the overseer of the day regarding the science activities. 
Doc: Documentarian. Documents the tactical uplink shift in grand detail.
KOP: Keeper of the Plan. "Owns" the science activity plans in Maestro, and then delivers this to the TAP/SIE
LTP: Long-Term Planning lead. They collect science team inputs and report what the long-term (days to weeks ahead of now) plan is for the rover.
And the meeting names, in order of their occurrence on a given planning day…
Tagup: Engineering tagup. First thing in the morning. The TUL, TDL, MM, SOWG chair, Doc, KOP, LTP, and others talk about the current state of the rover and the general direction for the sols that they are planning that day.
SOWG: AKA "Uplink Kickoff Meeting." The entire team — uplink, downlink, and science — gather to discuss the Tagup highlights as well as the plans for today's shift. We start digging into the details: what specific science activities we're doing, what engineering constraints must be applied, and all sorts of other goodies.
APAM: Activity Plan Approval Meeting. The TAP/SIE combines the science activity plan with the engineering "skeleton" for detailed resource modeling, like temperatures, currents, voltages, and all sorts of other things. Meanwhile, the RPs develop a the details for any drive or IDD activities. At APAM, the TAP/SIE and RPs present their results.
M/Sm: Master/Submaster Walkthrough. The activity plan created by the TAP/SIE is expanded, or detailed, into commands that the rover actually understands; likewise for the RPs' plan. At this walkthrough, the uplink team walks through the each and every command to make sure that they have been created properly for the plan at hand. Dirty details get discussed here.
SRW: Sequence Report Walkthrough. After the last walkthrough, the TAP/SIE collects the science sequences and RP sequences, integrates them into a single sequence, a single product for uplink. The TAP/SIE then models this single product in the SEQGEN software. At SRW, this integrated and modeled sequence is reviewed by the entire team. 
CAM: Command Approval Meeting. The final sequence products are approved for "radiation" — uplink — to the rovers. 

Ok. Deep breath. Current rover status coming soon.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Totally Fake and Contrived Interview with the Author

This, then, brings us to the actual introduction of this blog, justifiably titled A Totally Fake and Contrived Interview with the Author. Allow me the poetic freedom — there's that term again — to pretend to be you, my distinguished audience:

>>> Ok, uh-huh, so, right. Who are you?

According to my long-form birth certificate, a human. 

>>> No no no. Like, who are you?
Oh, right! My name and stuff. My name is Matt Lenda and I bench press a reasonable 175 pounds and I like hockey and my favorite guitarist is Derek Trucks and… 

>>> No no no, relevant stuff. What do you do for MER?

Oh, right! 

Starting over: My name is Matt Lenda and I am a Tactical Activity Planner and Sequence Integration Engineer (TAP/SIE) for the MER project. I have been at the Jet Propulsion Lab since July 2010. I am one of the few MER tactical team members that splits their time between MER and other missions, so I stick out like a sore thumb. (More on this later. It is important. I promise.) I do about half my time with MER and the rest of my time with a bona fide melting pot of other missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Spitzer Telescope, and Juno. I am in group 317-C, the ever-glorious "Multi-mission Planning and Sequencing Systems" group. We develop, maintain, and use spacecraft modeling tools and processes that are inherently applicable to any kind of deep-space robotic mission — hence, "multi-mission."

(FYI: So-called "flagship" missions like MER, Cassini, and MSL have their own group, 317-B. With the exception of the Rover Planners, almost everyone else on the MER tactical uplink team is in this group.)

>>> What else do you do at JPL?

Lots of stuff. Currently: attitude pointing allocation requirements verification for the Juno mission; mission sequencing for the Spitzer telescope; and some mission planning for MEX. In the past: attitude command and geometry model development for Juno mission planning and sequencing; enhanced downlink analysis and process development for MRO; relay performance analysis for MRO; and about 12 other things.

>>> Where did you go to school?
The University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. You know, the most awesomest (sic) school ever.

>>> What was your major?
Aerospace Engineering. I qualified for and finished the accelerated 5-year combined BS/MS program in May 2010, concentrating in Vehicle Systems and Controls for my MS. I actually studied aircraft autopilot control systems for my MS as a continuation of my capstone senior design project, the Miniature Aircraft Deployment System (MADS) -- think of it as an "airborne aircraft carrier." Including both my undergraduate and graduate curricula, only about half my classes were actually related to space. Excellent program.

(/shameless CU plug)

>>> Where else have you worked?
Since the summer before my junior year at CU in 2007, I worked in Missions Operations and Data Systems (MO&DS) at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), a CU institution about a mile east of the main Boulder campus. There, I did real-time mission operations and engineering health and safety analysis for ICESAT, QuikSCAT, SORCE, AIM, and the Kepler Mission. My job title was "Command Controller." 

99% boredom, 1% sheer terror. Killer gig.

Fun fact: I was the Command Controller on console during the launch of the Kepler Mission, and I was the first person to "talk" to Kepler — a simple no-operation command, but nonetheless, a command. I was driving (ahem, flying) that beast, along with about 15 other students my age. We were the end of the command chain, the ones who pressed "enter" to send up those 1's and 0's. Kepler was also my first experience with a so-called "deep space" mission; all the others are (were, for ICESat) LEOs.

I stayed with LASP from that first summer through my MS graduation in May 2010, moving out to Pasadena for my current gig at JPL a month later. This LASP job is the sole reason, I think, that I got the opportunity (Get it? Get it? GET IT?) to work at JPL.

(/shameless LASP plug)

>>> How much of your education do you use in your job on a daily basis?
Nonsensical question! It rests on the ill-supported notion that engineers don't use much of their education in their jobs. (Whoever is perpetuating this rumor: Stop it.) I'll quote Akin's 21st Law to clarify my experience: "Half of everything you hear in a classroom is crap. Education is figuring out which half is which." 

So, about half.

>>> What's your dream job?
Righteous question! As if it even needs stating: Like, duh, to be Joe Bonamassa*. Helping to operate cars on Mars ain't a bad thing to settle for, though.

>>> Can you get Oppy's autograph for my kid?

>>> What about Steve Squyres'?

Also no.

>>> Can I send you my resumé?
Say, that's a nice jacket you have there… 


*All linked videos are required watching (and please note this blog's Disclaimer!). Non-watchers will be hunted down and… well, actually, I won't do anything about it. I'll just be disappointed. Like a parent.

Friday, July 15, 2011

An Itch to Scratch

7:34pm — an email from Scott Maxwell, lead Rover Planner for the MER project and possible Cylon, comes rolling in:

Subject — Everybody be in Von Karman [Auditorium] at 11:55.
Body —  The JPL Tweetup is happening… I have been asked to informally get as many MER people as possible to the von Karman auditorium at 11:55 Monday.  I don't know why, I've just been told it will be very cool and you will wish you had been there.

At 11:52, I strolled down to von Karman, maybe a city block from the doorstep of my office building at JPL. Through the doors I could hear someone talking on a microphone and what seemed to be an audience laughing intermittently. I poked my head in and spotted some of the other MER team members standing next to the door, their eyes toward the stage. At the front of the auditorium were Scott Maxwell, Ashley Stroupe (fellow friendly neighborhood Rover Planner), and John Callas (friendly neighborhood MER Project Manager and bringer-of-donuts-on-Fridays). Between us and them sat a large collection of people, well over a hundred of them, with name tags on their chests and smiles on their faces. They were intently listening to Scott and Ashley talk about the death of the Spirit rover, which had only just been announced in an official manner, with John on color commentary.

I stood next to my team in the back of the room, feeling something — perhaps it was anticipation, though maybe I was hungry — raise the excitement level:

What's gonna happen at 11:55? Do they want us up there on stage? Will there be fireworks? Fireworks and beer? Fireworks and dancing? If there aren't fireworks I'm leaving.

11:57 came. Then it went. I started to feel impatient.



Then, Scott said to the audience, "Oh, and by the way, there in the back of the room is our wonderful engineering team that every day makes what we do possible."

Then, a hundred heads turned — twice as many eyeballs looking right into mine.

Then, mayhem.

The audience erupted into applause. A few brave souls gave us a standing-o, with the whole room quickly following suit. Hundreds of people applauding me (me?!) and my team for something that we sometimes consider somewhat passé, a given fact of our professional lives, a job. "Woah," I remember thinking. "There must me something to this whole MER thing."


This got me itching to do something fun. Well, it was that, and a lot of other things. But mostly that.

Oppy — sorry, the Mars Opportunity rover, for those of you not in on the lingo — was getting closer and closer to Endeavour Crater, her next big science target, a project waypoint for 2 long (Earth) years. ("Look, we can see features on that… that… that big thing! What did Ray call it? A 'hill'? Somebody fetch me a coffee. Wait, we don't have coffee interns? Why not?") Problem was, nobody seemed to be shouting loudly enough about it to the rest of the world. Like, you know, hey everybody, this is some really cool stuff. Like, you know, hey everybody, this is the next big thing for us. Like, you know, hey everybody, this is why guys like me want jobs like this.

Like, you know, HEY EVERYBODY.

I guess this is just what we should expect, though, what with Juno, GRAIL, and MSL in the launch queue at the time. MER is more than 7 years old now, a flagship of the past. The next several years will be big ones for our institution and we can expect to see all the news bites about JPL dominated by these missions. Fair enough. Even so, and despite all the great work that's been done in the domain of public outreach for the MER project so far, it seemed to me that there are still a few untouched demographics. Case in point: I recently got set up on a (marginally pleasant) blind date with a girl who had but a vague recollection that there was a place called Mars, much less that we have cars there. This might be telling.

By the time that itch to shout about the Endeavour campaign came along — when I was almost nine months on the job — I was comfortable enough with the MER tactical team to approach somebody about it. I was still the newbie, so I felt I had to be cautious. I had at my disposal a veritable lineup of spiritual leaders to ask for advice. Scott Maxwell was one of those people. He was the guy to talk to in regard to blogging about the various nerdscapades of the MER mission. He loves this kind of stuff, insofar as machines can love. 

(Incidentally, he was also the most convenient one to contact. An email, four floors, and a knock on the door of convenience. To be exact. Which I will be. Most of the time.)

My line-org boss, a non-MER guy but JPL veteran by the name of Dan Finnerty, once told me, "Sometimes it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission." It was in reference to some other work I was doing once upon a time where we had to float the whole task under the radar and come out on the other side of the disaster zone, all like, "Tah-dah! Look what I did!" (Management felt slighted.) This desire to shout about Endeavour was not one of those cases. I didn't want to start blabbering about MER tactical operations on the Internet without some sort of watchful eye to make sure I didn't overstep my bounds. Honestly, I can be kinda dumb, and there are touchy issues at stake here. 

But that itch wouldn't go away. Scott was on tactical the day I made my move, an email shot through the ethernet veins of JPL: "Scott, let's talk. After tactical." Only, wayyyyyyyy less savvy than that.

A few hours later, it all happens: I meet up with him. We walk into an empty office. Scott sits cross-legged on the empty desk opposite me. Not like an Indian, but like a… Scott Maxwell. As he sits, I’m expecting the slap-down. I'm expecting miles of bureaucracy and paperwork to get this thing to take off. I lay it down: "I wanna blog about Oppy getting to Endeavour, and I need to know what… what… what I need to know."

A smile creeps across his face: "Hell yes. That would be awesome." 

Ok. Great. Hard part's over. I was still reeling a bit, though. I was hinting that I wanted poetic freedom with said blog. I was also hinting that I needed validation. I explicitly said that the issue, to me, is two-fold:

1) Information sensitivity
2) Encroaching on others' territory

On a scale of 1 to "can really mess things up if ignored," they both weigh in at about… 9. And a half.

The former is the elephant in the room, the obvious one, a given fact of working at a place like JPL. I've had to play by these rules since I started working back in college — more on this later — and am well versed in the whole "shut your mouth when your spacecraft goes into safe mode" paradigm. It's an odd elephant, though, because there are all sorts of interesting things you can dig up as a member of the public. For instance, if you speak C, MATLAB, IDL, or FORTRAN and if you speak orbital mechanics and attitude dynamics, head down to the NAIF website and you'll stumble upon the SPICE Kernel suite. Released to the public is everything you need to, say, compute the near-exact position, velocity, and attitude of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter since launch — just like the engineers at JPL. Or, you'll find all the necessary coordinate transformations for the instruments on the Cassini spacecraft, or algorithms for determining event times, or spacecraft clock conversion coefficients — just like the engineers at JPL. Loads of goodies. You might expect that information to be sensitive in some sense, and yet all it takes is an education to make sense of it. But on the other hand, we can't show screenshots of some spacecraft modeling tools or command sequences or embarrassing pictures of Friday Happy Hours. This isn't classified stuff here, but it is sensitive. The water is murky, the lines gray; NASA's got a whole social media guideline webpage to cover it all. (Or maybe make it more confusing?)

The latter issue is, in a sense, a simpler one: There are a few other blogs out there from non-MER folks already dedicated to talking about things like Oppy's approach to Endeavour, such as Stuart Atkinson's Road to Endeavour (whose judicious use of Google Mars is a real treat); and then there is Scott Maxwells belated but fascinating blogs about the entire MER mission; and then there's the crowd at UMSF. There are also all the Twitter followers, random forum members, general internet lurkers, and people who don't know what the Internet is. The audience is huge. You see, I don't want to be all like


because then they'd be all like


And they'd be right. 

Let's pretend that neither or these things is an issue. In that case, why should a MER team member feel the need to write, to get excited about their work, to start conversations about a 7-year-old mission? One reason jumps out at me right away: Context. It's AWOL in most places that I've seen. In the blogs and forums out there now discussing the MER mission, there's an awful lot of… err… mystery… going on:

"Why did they take this image set?"
"Why didn't they drive?"
"Why aren't the images posted yet?

There's a good explanation for this: Those asking these questions simply aren't privy to the day-to-day tactical uplink operations information. They're doing the best with what they can. But do note: "Doing their best" should read "pretty damned good." Silently spying through forums like UMSF, I've taken note that people know an awful lot about MER. Sometimes, more than I do. Sometimes, way more than I do. 

Within reason, someone like me who can answer these questions — subject to the unfortunate constraints of embargoes, ITAR regulations, and rules of proprietary information — should stand up and say their bit. You know, here's why this happened kind of thing. People find it engaging. It sheds light on the project, the mission, the flight system, and the science. I think it's time to take it up a proverbial notch. 

This is related to a second reason: With one sole exception, the voice of the TAP/SIE is an unheard one. To fully justify a MER blog even to myself, there needs to be something unique about it. More on this in future posts.

Next reason to do it? Oppy's still around, she's still got plenty of gas in the tank, and she's still making footprints and RAT holes (ahem) on Mars that won't be going anywhere for a long, long time. Let's make her glorious mission all the more so and start talking about it again. There should be all sorts of buzz but I'm not seeing it except in a few scant places. This is a new campaign, a new life, a fresh start, a chance to get this team jumping around again in this post-Spirit world. Even as a rookie MER team member, I feel some sort of, I don't know, duty to drive home the idea that we're not (so to speak) joysticking the damned thing. What we do is much harder — and much cooler — than that.

I also don't want to just peruse the Internet and start peppering these other blogs and forums with replies that will just get lost in the ether. Obnoxious rants tend to get drowned out. Instead, we need to continue the largely successful collaborative effort between the MER project and the public. Instead, we need a dedicated location, free and open to the public like the others, where it's clear that the guy writing it is a MER team member, but there's no ambiguity in it, and he's not just a lurker out there sniping and taking cheap shots, and there are people out there to correct him. (That last one is the most important one. This is science, people — always name names, always express skepticism. I'm one to let slip something like, "Today Oppy did a backflip into the Santa Maria crater," and we need people to come along and say, "No, you idiot. It was a double backflip.")

I am young — well past 24. Gonna hit a quarter century in October. I've got gobs of what the old-timers call "energy" and I'm willing to let it loose. Which brings me to the final reason to do this: Because MER does science, and science is cool. And that, kids, is really why I'm here.*


*Well… Since I took a self-oath to not leaving out necessary details: Another reason** is that fully three people at that Tweetup in June told me I look like Steve Squyres. I'm not sure what this means, since a) I really don't think I do and b) likeness has a low correlation with awesomeness. Take it in stride, I guess? 

You be the judge:

**Another reason actually pops out now that I think about it: I write. Like, a lot. I need an outlet to keep my brain from exploding. The most prolific example of this need is when I wrote a 3056-word review — that's 5 full pages, single-spaced, with size-10 Times New Roman font — of just one of my "Top 5 Albums of 2010." An entirely different topic than what this blog is about, but nonetheless it is revealing. Needless to say, I think I hit my mark with this first post —2341 words, including this statement.