Saturday, August 13, 2011

I didn't know her, but she seemed pretty cool — a belated MER-A obituary

In honor of Opportunity's arrival at — errrr, drive that took her right past — Spirit Point, I give to you something I wrote for a personal blog a few months ago. I cleaned it up (Cursing? What's that? I certainly don't speak to my mother that way.) and fit it into the mold of this blog. I hope you enjoy it. 

And, at any rate, it'll explain the title of this blog. 


It was July 21 of last year when I had my first tactical shift for the Mars Exploration Rover flight project, rover B — aka MER-B, aka MER-1, aka SCID 253, aka Opportunity, aka Oppy. It was a training shadow shift, intimately known to veteran TAP/SIEs as, "Sit and watch until you're bleeding in places you shouldn't be." 

Months earlier, before even signing the contract for the job out at JPL, I had let my head get filled with the notion that rovers weren't anything worth my time. Somehow, I was "above" them. Or, something. I had trouble explaining it. It had something to do with the mechanical nature of them, which caused an immediate association with mechanical engineers, which caused an immediate association with the experience of seeing thirty percent of the folks in my aerospace engineering class drop the major in less in than three months for mechanical engineering because it was "easier." (It wasn't. I guess the joke was on them.) Or maybe it was the stigma of being on a flagship project. I hadn't met a single person on the MER project and yet I already had this idea that I wouldn't be able to identify with them. Why should I mess around with slow robots when I could mess around with spacecraft that were moving at a few kilometers per second, high overhead, responsible for more than 90% of their total downlink volume?

Two days previous to that July 21 shift, I set up a quick meet-and-greet with the Integrated Sequence Team (IST) Chief, Matt Keuneke. I stepped out of the elevator, two floors above my office in Building 264 at JPL, to find a huge pop-out picture of an artist's rendition of the rovers on the opposite wall. The words "MARS EXPLORATION ROVER 2003" were screaming across the top of the mural. There was a sense of gravity to this place.

I met Matt outside the restricted-access door. We walked to his office, just adjacent to a room full of computers — this one was suspiciously empty, cold, dark — where he gave me the run-down on the mission: Who he was ("IST team chief"), what I would be doing ("tactical activity planning and sequencing integration engineering for Oppy"), who my co-workers would be ("Well there's the TUL, MM, TDL, RP1/2, and PULs, for starters"), how much time I'd be doing MER tactical work ("More if I like you."), and some administrative nonsense.

Yeah, yeah, yeah Keuneke — get to the juicy stuff. I need convincing.

No such luck. I left his office still unsure of the whole MER thing. Was I pigeonholing myself? Was I heading into a deep dark realm from which there is no return? 

Are rovers actually… cool?

Two days later, the day of my first shift, I found myself wandering around the fourth floor to meet the person in charge of showing me the tactical ropes for the day. Her name was Vickie. Reserved, amiable, smart. She gets it. For some 10 minutes, I aimlessly shuffled through the doors. Maybe I was in the wrong place? This is where Matt's office was, right? Wasn't the IST room right next to him? 

Then my cell started to buzz — it was Vickie: "You must be the wandering fool down on the fourth floor. Go up one."

These guys have two floors in this building?!

I jogged up the two flights of stairs to find her waiting. I felt late. "Time to get started. We're on Slide sols for Oppy and we've got a Spirit sweep-and-beep meeting to get to."

Huh? Sweep and what? Oppy? … Mommy?!


The word "tactical" is a very unique one at JPL. All you have to do is say, "I'm on tactical today," and you get carte blanc to ditch all other commitments. The MER project exemplifies this as much as any, probably as a result of nothing more than the length of its tactical timeline, which is on the order of an Earth day: "We need to get this done, and we need to get this done in the next 8 hours. Sorry [wife/husband/dog/boss/new CD you haven't listened to yet]." For the orbiters floating through deep space, tactical timelines become weeks; strategic planning goes into years. MER is never more than a few weeks ahead of itself.

It took me three long months to understand this subtlety. I eventually realized that I was (am) one of the few members of the MER tactical team that hasn't been on the mission for at least several years. It seems like most of the people have been around since the 90-sol Prime Mission in 2004. I have this image in my head of the MER demographics: If you made a histogram of the "MER age" of MER tactical team members — how long they had been working on the tactical team — you would see a huge number of people in the "since Prime Mission" range, and a smaller number of people in the "just joined" range. There's this ghost town in the middle ground. Maybe I'm picking the wrong metric, though. Maybe there's something else to it.

In any case, imagine being one of this supposed majority of the tactical team, operating on this day-to-day basis of flight operations for 2600 (coming up on 2700) sols. Gets in your head a little. Makes you want to do it every day. I've been a tactical guy — at a mere half of my working time, mind you — for only nine months, some 350 sols or so, and I can't get enough of it. Every morning you're on tactical, you want to walk in and say, "GOOD THE HELL MORNING EVERYBODY." (Copyright Scott Maxwell) You forget all about the mundane and the monotonous; today, you're playing with cars on Mars.

There's another half to the story, and that half is Spirit's. I had limited involvement with Spirit because since day one for me — July 21, 2010 — she was silent. I arrived on the team when they were just developing the infamous "Sweep and Beep" protocol. Spirit was only a legend, a myth. My relationship to her is similar to Rob's relationship to the infamous Charlie:
She's in the [expletive] phonebook! She should living on Neptune! She's an extraterrestrial, a ghost, a myth, not a person in a phonebook!
(Incidentally, when we called for Spirit, we only got her answering machine. We left a nice polite message, and we never heard from her again.)

Once I was certified for tactical on Oppy three months after I started, the team chief gave me a few Spirit "shifts." The so-called tactical timeline no longer applied to Spirit and we only needed 24-hour resource modeling. Our chief MER power engineer was eternally grateful for this work. Her kind soul always seems to think it was something we didn't want to do; I really can't understand why, given the swipe-and-paste nature of it. Piece of cake. Again with the whole me-taking-my-job-for-granted thing. 

Honestly, these Spirit "shifts" were… dispiriting. (/Paolo joke.) I had to do in the Spirit IST room — still empty, still cold, still dark. Nobody else was around. The lights were dimmed, never at full brow. All the chairs but mine were butt-less until the downlink lead would come in and build some products for the mission control team. I knew the work wasn't very meaningful. I got the feeling that this room was once buzzing with the same energy that continues one floor up for Opportunity. Now it was just sad. 

I never did a single "true" tactical shift — building and modeling uplink products for a sol — for Spirit. I never got attached to her. Oppy's my baby now and I feel as much a part of the team as ever; Spirit' is just crippled, buried, and silent. She must have been pretty cool, though, if her absence can cause the kind of disheartening looks that creep across the team's collective face upon walking into that room.

As if saying goodbye to Spirit weren't enough, the Mars Science Laboratory is in the process of taking over MER town. For 7 years, MER has had un-challenged domination some two and a half floors of Building 264. Strewn throughout those floors are the other Mars programs — Mars Odyssey 2001 and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — but it's been MER town for all intents and purposes. The most stunning spectacle in all these floors was the Science Office Working Group (SOWG) Room that occupied nearly half of the 6th floor. The nickname for the room became "The Callas Palace," after project manager John Callas. He speaks the Steve Squyres language — perhaps a different dialect — and fully believes in the true integration of engineering and science teams. Take notes, kids.

The SOWG room reflects this perspective of his: a large and open middle area with a full-size model of the rovers; one row of a continuous table wrapping around three sides for the science team; and the infamous "back row" of engineers to provide reality checks and "no you can't do that because this is Mars and Mars is unforgiving to your idiot ideas" commentary; six projectors and screens lining the walls on two sides, with a touchscreen interface and connections to the off-lab teams; and pitch-black screens lining the windows behind the projectors. Special tours for the public in this room would result in gaping jaws as they watched everything work in concert. Spreadsheet display here, LTP report there, Maestro here, RP sim there.

The TAP/SIE — you know, a chump like me — controls all of this during the SOWG meeting. Once I learned how to operate the damned thing, when I pushed those touchscreen buttons and watched the whole room do my bidding, screens rolling down and computer inputs changing and phone lines buzzing, I felt like God

Oh, right, the pitch-black screens. A few months ago, the MER project got its final use of the SOWG room before handing it over to MSL. I was lucky (sic) enough to be on shift that day. I had used the room for only nine months and I still felt just the teensiest bit sad to have to say goodbye to it. After we finished up the SOWG meeting that day, we lifted the projection screens and pulled up the black shades:

I had always known they were shades because back in the late summer, I remember making the mistake of putting my hand on one of the shades on the east wall at about 1 in the afternoon and nearly burning my hand from the Sun beating down on the other side. But a sizable number of the MER tactical team had no idea that they were shades — they always thought there simply were no windows. Much of the team had spent 7 years using this room and, despite now being decidedly much less slaved to Mars time, forgot that sunlight is bad for humans when you're not on Earth time. Something obvious and clear to a newbie like me was buried down in the noise for everyone else.

I snapped the picture above and emailed it out to the tactical and science teams, subject line, "And the shades are opened…"

I got a few responses, all reflecting one of the following three:

"I had no idea they were shades."
"Makes me sad to see her go…"
"Much too bright."

I instantly — instantly, unequivocally, unambiguously — felt like an outsider to this project. I was set apart from that moment on, if not on the day I joined. I do not consider myself a true tactical MER team member for the simple fact that I didn't plug away at it for so long. Hell, I was still in high school when the rovers landed. Here were these people with this deep attachment to this room, just a room, and I felt only a hint of the remorse of letting it go. It's not that I don't feel included on the team — they have embraced me as well as I could have ever hoped for, and I hoped for quite a bit — it's that I don't have quite the same attachment. They are these strange, wild beasts. I feel like I am on the outside, looking in.


This gives me this bird's-eye point of view, allowing me to sit back in awe at this team and the way they do tactical operations. I've found it fun to intentionally ask a hot-button question that harkens back to years long gone, to a process or analysis or conversation in which people have personal and emotional stake, and then just… watch them.

What I get out of it is a useful rant, a half-furious monologue with content. It oozes fundamental rights and wrongs, fundamental strengths and flaws about how we do things. I take mental notes, as there is some professional stake for me to know these bits of knowledge.

I am now highly informed on day-to-day, non-deterministic tactical operations, sequence modeling, and — most importantly — what people mean. I am now in a position to watch, in near-real time, some piece of metal take images on — on, not around, not above — another planet. I am now one of a few dozen people in the entirety of human history who gets to say, "Yes, I play with cars on Mars. Yes, it kicks the crap out of anything else I've ever done. And yes, I don't think I'll ever get this lucky again." 

The official farewell to Spirit, now a few months back, reminds me of a lot:  the SOWG room is gone, MSL is creeping steadily upwards, and only Oppy is left to toy with. But it all seems to come down to Spirit. I never thought I'd be a rover kind of guy. Really, I feel tricked, like somebody duped me and filled my head with that anti-rover nonsense. And yet here I am. I never really touched the Spirit side of things, never got my hands dirty on the 4th floor.* But hey, you know… it's just as cool to watch this in lockstep with the rest of the battle-hardened team.

RIP, Spirit — I didn't know you, but you seemed pretty cool.


I think it should be known what the "TAP/SIE Album of the Day" was for my last two Spirit "shifts"…

(I hope we can appreciate the naming convention there.) 

That last one, Dust Bowl, was especially apt for the moment. The obvious reference to the "dust bowl" (Mars) aside, if you stretch the lyrics enough, you get the sense that Spirit is singing this song, living in a dust bowl, her human counterparts unable to console her. Plus, it's got a gnarly solo. 


*I have my claim to fame: My last Spirit "shift" was, incidentally, the last Spirit tactical planning shift for the entire mission. From now until the end of time, I will hold the all-time MER record for number of sols planned in a single shift: Twenty-eight. (I can feel the team saying, "This guy? Who is this guy? He got the record?" Eat your heart out!**)

**As it turns out, nobody but me seemed to care. Newton's… 11th?… Law: Matt is narcissistic.***

***Obligatory third footnote.


Glenn Fishbine said...

is that organic popcorn?

Did you ever consider the possibility that after your testosterone runs out, like 40 years from now, it feels good to live in the dark? :)

Mark Adler said...

Quite an entertaining journal entry. I enjoyed it.

I know the blackout shades in there well (I remember planning to buy them -- the damn things weren't cheap). Yet I have the same shocked reaction as others to that picture. It looks like a completely different room with the shades up. If someone showed me that picture without telling me it was the SOWG, it would probably take me a while to figure it out. Despite having spent countless hours in there.

(P.S. It's the Science Operations Working Group.)

Matt Lenda said...

Oh man, the joys of acronyms... If you look at the various documentation laying around you'll see both "office" and "operations" strewn throughout.

I usually choose "office," and apparently I'm wrong!