Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Squyres Sighting

It was one of those days: Eight different people wanting nineteen different things at four different times on three different floors. (Hey, at least they were all in the same building.) I was running all over the place and making phone calls and sending emails in the elevator.

I'm not in my office very much; my boss, two doors down from my cube, is always surprised to see me. On this one day in particular, before the madness started, I had spent 3 consecutive hours in my office — a veritable record for the last two and a half months, no doubt. Two days before I was on as TAP/SIE for Opportunity, and she had just had that little dust cleaning. Gave us a few watt-hours:

Courtesy user "dilo" at UMSF

It was late-morning by now, meaning it was time for the APAM (Activity Plan Approval Meeting) where the power analysis is shown for the sol(s) that the team is planning that day. I had to drop by a co-worker's office on the same floor for another task so I hurried up to the MER sequencing room to get that tag-up out of the way to make it to the MER meeting. I opted for the stairs; my building's elevators are notoriously and commonly out of order, so I didn't want to take my chances. As I made it up to the fifth floor, I could hear someone coming down from the floor above. This guy opened the door from the stairwell to the halls of the fifth floor and held it open for me. He was shorter than me and walked with a lot more intent; cowboy boots, to boot. As soon as he stepped into the hallway, he stopped dead in his tracks, apparently lost. Being in the hurry I was, I had no patience to wait for him to make a move. I walked right around him and headed straight for my destination. The best shortcut happened to be through the MER area of the fifth floor, and as I took off around this guy in that direction, I noticed that he was following me. I held the door open for him and noticed something very familiar about him — did I know him? 

Meh, I was too busy to turn around.

After my quick tagup around the corner, I came storming into the MER sequencing room to see if I had missed today's power analysis report. Mike the Mission Manager was on duty, and he told me: "There's been a Squyres sighting! He's here for the MSL Surface ORT [Operational Readiness Test] and decided he'd stop by to, 'Drive a real rover on the surface of Mars'."

My eyes shot to the top of my head as they do when I'm thinking back in time: Hey, that son-of-a-gun that looked lost was Dr. Squyres! If only I had turned around to see where he wanted to go, I could have had some good face time* with the man who so boldly leads us into the vast unknown of Mars. Dr. Squyres knows that there is a person named Matt Lenda, and that this Matt Lenda does TUL and TAP/SIE work for the MER project. Dr. Squyres does not know if Matt Lenda has a face at all, much less a face that he would recognize. So even if I had turned around, he would have thought I was some nice stranger.

Damn. Well, there will always be more opportunities to run into Dr. Squyres by happenstance in the building 264 stairwell.*

Right, so, why the heck was Squyres at JPL? As my bracketed insert above tells us, the MSL project had a surface operations test that week. In these tests, the team simulates real-time data going to and coming from a rover clone down the street at JPL; it exercises our processes, our tools, and our teamwork. (I also participated, but several days later.) Squyres was there as a co-investigator. He couldn't ignore his loyal MER team and decided to walk down a flight of stairs to say hello. He brought with him an announcement: He had prepared a presentation especially for the MER team, to be given the next morning.

After hearing this news, I looked at my calendar: I was triple-booked at the time Squyres had proposed. I quickly emailed three people: "Cancel my 10am with you. I've got cooler things to do."

The next day, I got to the room twenty minutes before the presentation was going to start. (The only person to beat me to the room was Scott Maxwell.) Fifteen minutes later, the room — small given the expected crowd — was filled to the brim. People had brought chairs form offices and placed them in the hallway; standing room only in the main room. We were all excited to hear Steve just… talk.

We all welcomed him and Project Manager John Callas gave the room to Steve — to uproarious applause. We needed this invigoration after three months of frustrating winter ops, and we let Steve know it. He was all ear-to-ear smiles, excited, jumpy, ready to unleash all sorts of awesome upon the willing**.

[insert Steve's talk here]

Well, I can't spill the beans and scoop the science team. A lot of the stuff in Steve's talk was not news to us or the rest of the world; what was new was the story that Steve and the rest of the science team had put together. We had all these pieces to the puzzle of Cape York and now we have a full story to tell about this place. It's some of the most fascinating science you can imagine when you start hearing Steve describe, well, rocks. Just rocks. That's all. The team has submitted a paper about the science so far at Cape York to the journal Science. And when we see that paper drop, we can celebrate. But only briefly, because there's work to do. We're over the winter hump and we're ready to boogey.

Steve ended his talk clocking in at about an hour and a half (including questions from the team), and then he was off again.*** Despite the stay being so short, the team felt juiced, pumped, rocking and rearing to go.

Now that's a leader — a guy who walks into the room, grabs its attention without a moment's hesitation, and says, "Here's what up…"


*This is blatantly untrue.

** = us. In case that wasn't obvious. Which it was.

***There was one last bit to Steve's talk I didn't mention: "What's next?" Simple: Although we see evidence of the phyllosilicate clays at Cape York, we don't expect to get that lucky. We'll stick around CY for a bit then head south to Cape Tribulation as soon as we can — giving us the chance to climb a mountain.

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