Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Day In the Life, bSols 2719-2721: Secret Woids and 2x4s

(Alternate title: Newton's 7th Law: Fridays can stink)
It's Friday, 8:22am. Scott (not of the Maxwell type), today's mission manager, comes strolling in for the engineering tagup meeting at 8:30.

"COFFEE TIME," he announces.

I'm excited. Giddy, almost. Right up there on the list of "things I need to prevent a murderous rampage" is coffee. And Scott brought some.

Such is Scott's way of the Friday tactical shift — running down to the JPL cafeteria in building 167 just minutes before the start of the day and getting a big to-go box of coffee for the team. Sometimes, he also comes brings a couple boxes of donuts. With a healthy (sic) supply of things to raise our collective blood sugar and caffeine levels, we're ready to start. (It's worth mentioning that on the rare occasion that John Callas, MER Project Manager, is on shift as Mission Manager, he's the guy to bring in the those delectable high-GI goodies, and he usually brings really good ones. He's always careful — in a very precise, calculating way — to keep his team happy.)


Fridays can be rough. They're almost always 3-sol planning days, with the exception of transitioning from Restricted to Nominal planning cycles, when we might get lucky and only have to plan two sols. With three sols, the SOWG wants to pack in a ton of science, and the engineering team just has to keep up: "Ok, to summarize… a 3-hour drive, a Pancam twilight — do we need filter wheel heating? — an APXS integration on the second sol, a Navcam 360, a couple of Pancam Taus — wait, Ecam PUL wants a Navcam Tau? Ok, throw it in — and some engineering requests on the third sol. Right. Wait, did we forget the turn for comm  after the drive? I need another donut." 

I have a decent habit of jotting it all down in a notebook. On Fridays, the number of scribbles and cross-outs is wondrously out of control. I haven't yet learned to just wait until the end of the SOWG meeting to write it down. It's almost more fun to watch the plan evolve on paper.

One Friday in particular from a few months ago burns deeply in my memory. It was a late start as it were, as we were shifting into the restricted sol planning phase and had had a slew of pretty nasty Slide planning offsets earlier in the week. Squyres was SOWG Chair that day and the plan was fairly benign, but despite the good moods all around, things just went plain wrong. Like, everywhere. Catastrophic disasters at every turn. Weird SEQGEN errors, integration mishaps, rehashing of plans. Ick. Imagine the smoothest, most pain-free, quickest 3-sol planning day. Then imagine the exact opposite of that. It was 8pm Pacific time by the time we finished — oh, right, 11pm at Cornell where Squyres and Pancam John reside — and everyone was exhausted

Something was watching over us, getting a nice laugh out of the whole thing. But the story gets better.

There's a point in our process right before the last walkthrough where the various utility scripts that I am using make me stop and wait for a secret password, a password only available once the entire Walkthrough has been completed, and only available on the TUL's walkthrough screen; if the products or screen are ever refreshed, the word changes. You can't beat this system. You can't hack your way around this system. You can't cheat this system. It always stops you in your tracks.

It's called the "Secret Woid" ("Secret Word"), but I think a more honest title for it is, "The thing that keeps me from being awesome." 

After the walkthrough is over, I have my key to the end of the day, and boom, I'm off to the races again to put the finishing touches on that day's bundle(s). Since it's just random word from some mystery dictionary, some of these words can be a little racy, some a little funny, some a little… scary. You know, a little… foreboding. The MER tactical team is extremely superstitious with respect to the Secret Woid. It follows, then, that if we get a Secret Woid that gives us the heebie-jeebies, we get wary. Context is everything.

For each sol, there's a new Secret Woid. The first one for this already long day popped up after the review of the first sol:

Fans of matrices, you'll get that one. So far, so good. Superstition kept at bay.

The second one popped up:

[expletive deleted]. I had heard of a time in past years when the Secret Woid was "anomaly" — instilling an equally chilling sense of fear in the team. Did we just one-up them? I think so.

Then, the third one:


Upon seeing this, we were officially riding the thin line between hysterical laughter and a Led Zeppelin-esque, paranoia-induced fit of destruction. I didn't have the hydration left in my body to cry. The TUL on duty took a screenshot ("pics or it didn't happen," I said) and emailed it out, subject line:


Oh, right, the proverbial cherry on top: it was a Friday the 13th. The irony, in the words of Stephen Davis, were murderous.

(For what it's worth, the plan went off without a hitch, superstition be damned. Snip, snap, done.)


Fast forward to a few days ago, when we planned sols 2719-2721. This day had a different kind of bad flavor to it: I woke up feeling like I'd been hit in the face with a 2x4, my head about to explode from pent up allergy-wrought snot. I wasn't sick, just allergic to outside things. Maybe it was the 3-mile run through Pasadena's unusually cool weather that did it. (I'm one of those barefoot runners. Mike the Mission Manager and I occasionally show up to our shifts in these awesome bad boys, so be like us and get yourself a pair. All the cool MER kids are doing it.)

Today's TUL, Tony "Tony the TUL" the TUL*, beat us all to the sequencing room that morning. He knew that today was a RAT day (and a special one at that — we're making a RAT hole on Salisbury 1, not just brushing) and knew that we hadn't used any RAT grind sequences for the better part of a year. The last time was at Luiz de Torres on the lip of the Santa Maria crater. Today had the potential to go long.

Of course, we have our guidelines for how long a day can go. The uplink window for this set of sols didn't start until sometime the next day, but that doesn't mean we're allowed to take that long to make the plan. For three-sol plans like today, our limit is on the order of half a day, putting our "drop dead" time somewhere in the vicinity of 8pm Pacific. That is, if we don't have the sequence bundles built by then, we drop everything and walk away, letting the runout from sol 2718 take us through the weekend. I am yet to experience such a situation, though I've come close. I can't imagine the disappointment of working close to 12 hours and then having to simply throw it in the trash simply because Mars is unforgiving.

But, really, will the plan go long? Sure, we haven't used the RAT in a while, and sure, it's a three-sol plan, but… Although I don't say it, I start profiling my team for today. Lucky for us, it's a bunch of all-stars. Well, they're all all-stars, but some are more experienced with certain kinds of rover activities. By way of example, Joseph was RP1 today. He's the RP you want when you've got RAT holes to make. Although all RPs are capable of building and delivering the IDD sequences necessary to make a RAT hole, he is particularly keen on the nuances therein. Ashley's in the RP2 chair today, and she knows her RAT sequences just as well.

Wearing the Ecam hat is Justin. He got pulled in to do work on MSL a long time ago, which is an asset I hope they never let go for their sake. He is a MER Ecam legend. He hasn't been on shift for a long time because of his MSL commitments, but he shows up in the sequencing room just prior to the SOWG. "Justin!" the room erupts in unison. Although there are no Navcam images in today's plan, there are plenty of Hazcams and MIs — and remember that Ecam PUL is responsible for all Navcams, Ecams, and MIs. He's still got the touch.

Heading the science team is Ray Arvidson. He's been SOWG chair most of this week and therefore has the context of the current tactical situation ripe in his brain. A potential combo-breaker is when the SOWG chair switches to a new person right on a complex planning day. It almost never results in problems because the SOWG is great at communicating "handover plans," but you can imagine how things might get missed. But not today. No sir.

Things are looking up. Despite my head feeling more like a levee and less like a head, I'm confident in the day going well. And, indeed, it did. The plan is looking great after SOWG meeting, if the low number of revisions during the meeting is anything to go by. So, right, what did we plan? 

Well, first, I planned the TAP/SIE Album of the Day: "Don't Explain" by Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa. Broken-heart soldiers, beware, this one will wring you dry. Second, I queued up my "walkthrough song." That is, the song I listen to when I'm doing my Master sequence review. It's important to be totally in the zone when you're reviewing the Masters, especially when you've got a lot of sub-sequences to look at and especially when there are three sols in the plan. Today, it's more of an album: DJ Meshblorg's "Bassed God." Why? Because it's terrifying, and I like terrifying. It's also an hour long, more than enough time to do my dirty work and get ready for the walkthroughs with the team.

Besides the RAT activities, Pancam is taking a front seat today. Pancam has three major duties for this plan:

1) RAT hole imaging. 

2) SuperRes imaging of Endeavour. Tau, or atmospheric dustiness, has decreased this past week. Squyres put down a lien to get a super-resolution panorama of the entirety of Endeavour Crater, and it has taken the better part of a week to get it all done. Here's a nice composite of the result:

(Click to enlarge; courtesy Jan van Driel at UMSF)

3) Extraneous target imaging. We've got the Biscotasing and Halliday targets just in front of us, and there was a lien to get a nice shot of Solander Point to the South. 

After the RAT dug a hole, we got a nice collection of MIs:

(contrast stretched)

Our all-star team walked out of the room with a couple hours to spare. Monday, I'm back on the horse with a similar cast of characters to take a nice hard look at the RAT hole — ground in the loop, you know — and see if we want to move on and continue north to get to some more Noachian.


Quotes of the day:

"I think I'd rather have that margarita now."
-Anonymous (well… team quote)

"[lonnnnnnnng sequence walkthrough]… and then we have a RAT hole."
-RP Joseph


*only words beginning in "t" allowed here

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