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.


Emily Lakdawalla said...

This is how I feel about your new blog, Matt:

More! More! More!

Joi said...

Speaking as one of those JPL Tweetup attendees.... WOOHOO, another awesome JPL person to sort-of stalk online!

KIDDING. (Sort of. Ya'll are some of the rockstars of the NASA-geek world, you know!)

Welcome to blogging. :)

Stu said...

Brilliant start, Matt! All the rover huggers out here walking beside Oppy as she closes in on Cape York welcome and thank you for doing this :-) (and thanks for name-checking RtE too, much appreciated!)

Matt Lenda said...

Emily --

Just to give you a gauge on my illustrious sense of humor, something you'll be getting used to: I laughed at that video for at least 3 minutes. Straight.

MoreInput said...

Thank you for your blog. Can't wait to get new insights of this mission.

Scott Maxwell said...

I am not a Cylon.

I mean, not as far as you know.