Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Day In the Life — bSols 2676-2677 — A Change of Perspective

There are only so many places to sit around the center table in the MER-B sequencing room. A reasonable estimate puts this number at 6, not counting the ends. The end towards the door is usually John Callas' spot, when he chooses to stroll from his office just down the hallway to the room to get a glimpse of the action. The opposite end spot makes you sit with your back to the projector screens. Do not want.

Monday (planning sols 2674-2675) was a shadow-heavy day: Will, a former-and-now-returning-in-all-his-glory tactical guy, wore the TDL hat with Patrick; the infamous Brenda "Brenda Jeaux" Franklin wore the TAP/SIE hat with me. Brendajeaux — pronounced in a southern accent, in one word, don't be shy — is always quick to remind me that she and I could never get married, never mind her being old enough to be my grandmother. Otherwise, she'd be Brenda Lenda. (We'd have to put all Linda's and all Kendra's in the same category. You know, just to be sure.)

I like to stick with something more palatable: When she's shadowing me, it's Team Brenda-Lenda, in the hizz-ouse. (The hyphen is important, I promise.)

Today, though, was a wholly unseen monster: Will shadowing Patrick again as TDL; Richard (a seasoned TAP/SIE, TUL, and Navcam/Ecam PUL to boot) shadowing Mission Manager Matt; Nimisha (a two-year TAP/SIE veteran) shadowing the reserved Vickie as TUL; and a new hire, Heather, shadowing yours truly on TAP/SIE.

Oh, right, Albert was back as SOWG chair, so he plops down at the table, too. The RPs invited a summer intern to join us. John pops in and out, too. With another intern in the room, the body count is at 12. I stash my laptop and bag of food in the TAP/SIE corner, staking my spot before more tactical rabbits take it over. (And with the arrival at Cape York, we can expect more days like this.)

From my perspective, what made today interesting, and what makes recent planning days like it interesting as well, is the presence of a shadow. Shadow training is, really, the only way to learn any of the roles in tactical. There's no true "TAP/SIE for Dummies" resource. There are documents galore to get going on the basics — you know, like, here's Mars, here's a rover, here's a joystick, just kidding throw away the joystick and don't be silly, here are the dinosaur bones, just kidding we haven't found any yet, just kidding it's a conspiracy and they've managed to silence us — but those only go so far. There's one way to learn: Shove the newbie into the pool. 

There are several joke names I've come up with to refer to TAP/SIE training. My current favorite:

How to Make a Perfectly Capable Engineer Cry

It's the firehouse nature of it. It's that it is almost entirely idiosyncratic. (By the way, my desert island, all-time, top favorite underestimation of the world of engineering: Most of it is idiosyncratic. Get used to it, kids.) It's the requirement to… just… remember things. You just have to know. You just have to get it.

Osmosis is the key: take it all at face value; remember that the TAP/SIE checklist is a checklist, not a procedure. (Recent estimates of turning the TAP/SIE checklist into a true procedure place it at… one bazillion of whatever the longest book is. No more, and no less. Same for the RPs' procedure, I'm sure.) Some of it is mindless thumb twitching to power through the scripts' execution, while some of it requires actual thought. Turning on the brain in the right places is another acquired skill of the TAP/SIE.

I've found that training, on either the giving or receiving side, is like quizzing the musically illiterate. Let's pretend JJ Cale's "Cocaine" is playing, and somebody goes, "Hey! Eric Clapton!" Do you get angry? Do you blame The Man? Or do you just accept that they just don't know any better? Or, let's pretend you flat-out just ask the person, "Explain to me the significance of Derek Trucks touring with Eric Clapton." If their benighted eyes just stare at you, do you make them feel bad that they don't know? Or do you accept that they just don't know any better?

(The latter.)



Since Friday, our perspective has changed in more of a poetic sense. Since solar conjunction and Santa Maria, our Long Term Planning leads have been presenting something we call the "sol path" — a 1-week-ish, high-level plan — with the words "Drive towards Endeavour." Starting last Friday, those words were changed:

"Drive to Cape York."

This represents a subtle but significant change in our tactical stance. Most of my year as a TAP/SIE has seen only long drives across small ripples, with the occasional crater popping up. Santa Maria was my first experience with sequencing actual science, in the sense that most of the plan was geared towards the science. In the long Meridiani expanse, there is, of course, some science to be had: poke a rock here, 13-filter some outcrop there. For the most part, though, it's all been about supporting drives. This changes your mindset, your paradigm, your modus operandi

Steve Squyres sent an email out to the team to this effect. Paraphrased: "Let's take our foot off the pedal and catch our breath."

The planning for sols 2676 and 2677 took on this mindset, though there was some whiplash from slowing down. The day before, Frank, one of our RPs, gave a presentation to the sequencing team (IST) that was then a few months old. It was about the plans for the approach onto Cape York. He had mapped out two paths: Path A enters in the direction of the center of Endeavour from the west side of CY through what looks like an "opening," which is likely just a break in the surface contact; Path B starts at Spirit Point and climbs onto CY from the south. 

Both paths seem safe for the rover to drive on. However, Path A gives us a better ("less oblique," as Frank puts it) angle into Endeavour and isn't so awkward, if his estimates of the tilt at various points on CY are correct. On the other hand, Path B has some potential targets right at Spirit Point, and there's no reason to force driving back to the Path A entrance because getting to the middle of CY from Spirit Point looks easy enough. All considered, Path B was the preferred choice.

This was sitting in the back of our minds through the SOWG meeting and APAM a few hours later. Our RPs had built the basic structure of their drive and were ready to flesh out the details. That was until another RP walked in during APAM and dropped the bomb:

"Didn't Frank want imagery of Path A's entrance point?"

If we had sequenced the drive as planned at that point, we would have blown right past a decent spot to get the last shot of the Path A entrance onto CY. We were forced — though I use that term lightly —  to sequence any such imaging in the post-drive block. Both TULs and both MMs were uncomfortable with adding even mid-drive imaging to the plan at this point. Although it can be considered a trivial process, that's exactly where we make mistakes. Pre-drive imaging of the entrance was out of the question, too, since we were about 100 meters away from the entrance before the drive. 

Frank had at least wanted some images of the entrance in case we did, in the end, find that Path B was not traversable. We'd be a few steps ahead with the information from possible. We nuked the AutoNav portion of the drive — killing 10 or so meters from the drive — and opted for the usual blind drive for 120 meters. We wanted to add a second set of Pancams at the end.

But! Hey! Wait!

The trade-off wasn't only about how or when to sequence them. It's not that easy. The next variable was about preserving memory on board: we're a little bit-starved right now. We clean out the rover's flash memory pretty regularly but things can creep up on us. We've got enough room to store the additional images, we surmised, but what about downlink priority? When should we make them come down? What about Friday's planning, when we want to do some color imaging and will have 3 sols to plan? Do we want to fill flash so willy-nilly? What about visibility? Will we even be able to see it, or will the additional Pancam frames be wasted bits? 

Wait, who's decision is this? It sounds sciencey, so Albert should take charge. Well, no, not really, it's about bits and drive distance, and it sounds engineeringy, so the RPs should take charge.

A voice comes booming in from the phone speaker — it's Steve. I didn't even know he had dialed in. From the corner, I'm all like

Figure 1: what is going on

And Steve's all like

Figure 2: Kang. Kang the Conqueror. He conquers things.

He says, "How many RPs are there in the room? Make a decision!" Almost like saying, "Hey kids, put the legos down! Get the job done!"

We opt for a 4x1 Pancam at reasonable resolution. Better to have it and delete it later if we find out that it's junk.

Figure 3: For. The. Win.

For the record, APAM is usually a meeting that lasts 15 to 20 minutes. We pushed 1 hour with this one. The time didn't bother us — we had plenty of tactical margin given that our uplink wasn't until the next Earth day anyways (Restricted planning is not for the impatient) — nor should it have. There were many tradeoffs being tossed around, many of them apples-to-oranges, or apples-to-some-fruit-nobody's-ever-heard-of.


The rest of the day went rather uneventfully. I'll take this time to introduce a new concept and new post theme:

The TAP/SIE Album of the Day

Around October of last year, when I was still in TAP/SIE training, I introduced this into my Uplink Reports. A reasonable number of people see my report, so I figured I must give them some goodies. Each new tactical shift, I list the next "album of the day." It's what I'm listening to, or what's in a playlist I'm making, or simply what's in my library. Yes, this is required listening. No, you can't complain.

The first ever TAP/SIE Album of the Day was Monte Montgomery's "Live At the Caravan of Dreams." This past Wednesday, it was Joe Satriani's "Live In Paris." I try to span my genres like a good music nut: Eva Cassidy; Erykah Badu (NSFW!!!); Black Country Communion; Paul Simon; Walter Trout; BB King; Bnois King; you name it. If it's good, honest music, I'll make it the album of the day. 

(Letters to the editor entitled, "Hey Matt here's a new album of the day for you," will be summarily ignored. I didn't say I'd be fair about it.)

It rarely grabs the attention of those in the sequencing room, even though it's displayed for part of APAM and the Master/Submaster Walkthrough. The one time it got some actual conversation was when Vickie Scarffe, resident TUL and TAP/SIE, asked me, "Is this just off the top of your head?"

"Yes," I replied, "sometimes. Sometimes not. Sometimes I've got an agenda about it. Moreover…"

"Moreover?!" said Julie Townsend, RP2 that day.

"… yes, moreover, it's what you should be listening to."


joeranch said...

So is it photograph the Path A entry point then move on to Path B, Spirit Point?

Unknown said...

So is it photo at/of Path A entry point, then move on along Path B to Spirit Point?

Matt Lenda said...

That's the idea.

Diane Wilson said...

"Engineering is idiosyncratic." So true. That's why I hate contract programming; you work on something for three or six months, then walk away from your mistakes before you can even realize what they were. Then you go somewhere else and make the same mistakes again.

You have to stick around long enough to get bit by your mistakes. You have to know the history of how and why things happened the way they did. You have to know where the bodies are buried. Otherwise, you know nothing.