Monday, August 6, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry On: From MER to MSL

Watching Paint Dry

I always liked the “watching grass grow” analogy to boredom better. Seemed a little more tangible, a little more organic. Plus, paint smells. A team I used to work with back in Colorado actually started growing grass in the hours upon hours of boredom that the spacecraft was affording us. 

1 day, 9 hours, 27 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Press just came into the CMSA. I’m inundated with questions like, “Why the peanuts?” Because of reasons, is why.

1 day, 8 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds.

Just wrapped up a DDOR*. Telemetry coming back in whatever round trip light time is.

Oh yeah, what’s cool is that I bought one of those AeroPress things. Stuff makes quality ‘joe.

Well, wait, that’s not the coolest part. I guess the coolest part is that I’m sitting at a console in the Cruise Mission Support Area (CMSA) for the Mars Science Lab. I'm watching telemetry flow as we approach Newton’s pull from the body of Mars. I’ve been in this room roughly once a week since I started doing uplink operations – and subsequently rolled off of the MER project – and it’s not a whole lot different today than it was on those days. The downlink rate of the MSL spacecraft is just low enough to be annoying. It’s mostly an insanely unfair function of Earth-to-spacecraft range, and that range is [insert big frickin’ number]. With low data rates, we don’t get snapshots of the spacecraft’s state of health as often as we like, so we deal with the reality of watching paint dry.

Watching paint dry, by the way, isn’t all that fascinating. People say they want my job, but they don’t really know what it can be like. It can suck the life out of you. Maybe a telemetry channel will update here, maybe we’ll get a message from the spacecraft there. Not a whole lot. She flies herself, really. 

But in about 30 hours this room will be full of people like me, all of them brimming with anticipation as we watch a machine attached to another machine that just ejected from another machine… land itself on Mars.

1 day, 8 hours, 28 minutes, and 35 seconds.

I still don’t believe that this is actually happening. The cool factor is a little subdued at the moment.

“(Let’s Stop) Reinventing the Wheel”

With the paint drying ever so slowly, there’s time to reflect.

Spacecraft operations teams function mostly on reality. Engineering is done with numbers, and analysis without numbers is only an opinion. The doses of reality come in sobering and inconsistent waves, juxtaposed by the tunnel vision that is, itself, the spawn of equal parts innovation, paranoia, and adrenaline. 

When you start diving deep into the caverns of a spacecraft system, you start to see heritage: this thing or that process or this guideline or that scenario is a particular way because somebody did it on a previous mission the same way and it worked well. There was no need to reinvent a wheel because the operational regime of said thing hasn’t changed in years, if not decades. Time – and its evil brother, Money – is saved when an engineer takes these perfectly acceptable shortcuts in design and process. Efficiency and incremental improvements are nice-to-haves; effectiveness is indispensable.

The need to invent or create is insatiable for an engineer. It gives you a sense of reality and a connection to what you do. It makes it… real. But the desire to create is in exact opposition to reality that there is probably already something or someone out there that can do the same job.

Went to bed – came back again in the morning.

12 hours, 42 minutes, and 42 seconds.

Our flight director just instructed our ACE – the person who clicks the buttons to send the actual ones and zeroes to the spacecraft – to “turn off command modulation.” This is, nominally, the last thing we’ll send to the spacecraft until we’re on the surface.

When a new, big flight project comes along at JPL, this desire to invent and create is magnified. We delude ourselves into the notion that since we’re new and big and bad, everything we make needs to be newer and bigger and badder. It’s a serious problem when we put those blinders on and act like we’re the first in the business to do this business.

On one hand, the inheritances of many pieces that make MSL happen are clear and obvious. But on the other hand, there are many new inventions. The contrast in these two categories is stark.

The trouble comes in the apparent middle ground, where it seems that you can’t place a particular problem that needs to be solved into a well-defined spot in the spectrum from “inheritance” to “invention.” You subconsciously activate your tunnel vision, removing any ability to see what else is around you, and start reinventing things. You work literal days and literal weeks on this new problem to be solved, and then at the end of it someone more astute or removed from the process intelligently points out that your problem had already been solved. If you had simply asked the right question to the right people, you would have been done with this problem weeks ago. 

The truth hurts. Your need to feel connected, to feel reality, was too much, and you cracked.

What’s worse than the subconscious blinders are the blinders of outright denial, the blinders that you artificially place in your view because you refuse to accept that there’s no room (or time, or money) for you to invent something. 

We at JPL – and everyone at every abode to engineering and science in the world – have a problem with these blinders. We must collectively reset ourselves and remove our blinders. Turns out, we’re pretty good at pressing our own reset buttons, which brings me to my point: We learned how to press that reset button because of the MER experience.

10 hours, 48 minutes, and 38 seconds.

My Mission Manager mentioned my glorious “good luck” muttonchops (remember these?) at the 9:30am press conference. They are officially famous, but not Bobak Ferdowsi kind of famous.

The CMSA is quiet. The EDL Manager said that we’re “rationally confident and emotionally terrified.” I only agree with the first half of that. I do have stake in the success of the Sky Crane – that stake being a job – but I’m not so emotionally attached to it. Maybe it’s in my head, maybe I’m just going through that stage of denial. Maybe the acceptance will occur before this countdown clock hits zero.

One thing, though, is clear: MER paved this path. In between every thought about MSL, this one squeezes itself in. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in this room that would disagree – but only if you pressured them into saying it. It’s easy, though, to find people in this room that don’t dwell on this notion as much as I do.

Then I walk across the street back to Building 264. I hop in the elevator and ride it up to floor 5 – wait, no, sorry, floor 6, old habits. The old Callas Palace has been spliced into two rooms and is now outfitted with sleeker, shinier machines running sleeker, shinier software. The shades are drawn. And yet, with all the differences, it still screams MER. Come Monday morning, we’re going to pick up where we still haven’t left off with Opportunity: tactical daily planning so that we may explore Mars. It's a monument to renewal and reinvention to inject ourselves with a sense of reality.

We hit Curiosity’s Sol 0 at 13:50:00 UTC (06:50:00 PDT) this morning. Breezed by without a blink from the team, most of who are sleeping anyways. Until Opportunity conks out, MSL will be perpetually behind the 3000 sols that she has under her belt already. It’s an astounding wealth of experience that we’re about to start all over again.

So, to my team I silently say, “Let’s please stop inventing the wheel.” We know how to do this. The game has not changed in any fundamental way. We’re the only people in the world that can drive cars on Mars, and we’ve done it all before. This one’s newer, bigger, badder, but it’s still just a machine on six wheels.

Unreserved and unabashed, we have to remind ourselves: “Keep calm and carry on exploring.”

Literally Unbelievable

10 hours, 23 minutes, and 28 seconds.

Most of the team is out to lunch. We’re spying on the media from afar, trying to enjoy our last lunch before what may be the biggest moment JPL has ever experienced.

The word “unbelievable” is, to me, the epitome of hyperbole**. And yet, I feel the need to actually apply it to my experience at JPL.

Interestingly, the enthusiasm and desire to start this blog was intensely opposed by this mental block of mine that causes me to refuse to accept the reality of what it is that I do. Occasionally I’ll reconcile the reality: “Holy crap, I make 1’s and 0’s that get turned into a series of ups and downs in a radio signal that’s leaping across space to be interpreted by a computer on another solid body millions of miles away.” But it's ephemeral, and I forget it immediately. The light that clicks on and reveals the truth is now off again.

It’s just weird. Plain weird.

So now I’m involved with the newer, bigger, badder machine – our wonderful MSL, tucked tight behind an impenetrable heatshield, wrapped from the topside by a metal cage with rockets – and I just want to sit there and invent. I want to create. I want to have a level of involvement, something that can validate the reality that is staring me right in the face. Instead, I feel an extraordinarily benign — if there can be such a descriptor — disconnect from this reality. 

I literally don’t believe that there is a car on Mars, exploring the rim of a crater we call Endeavour. I literally don’t believe that this car gave inspiration and birth to another, bigger, badder, more complex car that is hours away from landing an astronomer’s stone’s throw from this first car. My brain isn’t processing this data.

This feels like a problem to me.

6 hours, 0 minutes, and 0 seconds.

Just finished up the last Cruise Ops Status Tagup meeting. Our Flight Director dropped the last marble into the "days until landing" jar. There was applause, lots and lots of applause. Also just did the last "Playcall" for EDL Parameter Update #4 — everyone agreed we were no-go. She would fly out that 500-meter error.

It hasn't gotten any more real. I can't just sit here and watch. I can't just sit here and enjoy the moment.

1 hour, 10 minutes, and 13 seconds.

The Odyssey spacecraft is rolling to its off-nadir position to point its UHF antenna where the MSL landing site will be in an hour or so. She is out of contact with the DSN, and this is worrisome because it recently had reaction wheel issues. Hopefully she comes back for us when we expect her.

The room I'm in and the rooms surrounding it have filled up to capacity. There are celebrities, big-shot JPL'ers, family, friends. And they all believe. Why can't I? What switch do I need to flip?

50 minutes, 20 seconds.

Odyssey is back in contact with the DSN. The roll maneuver went off without a hitch. She is ready to support the bent-pipe relay for MSL EDL.

This disbelief makes me nervous. My hands are getting cold — maybe it's the air conditioning vent right above me — and I'm pacing. 

13 minutes, 51 seconds.

MSL is either dead or alive. Nothing in between.

The room is growing silent; it's about to happen. The make or break moment. I start recording video with my iPhone.

7 minutes, 0 seconds.

Atmospheric entry. The donut-shaped Cruise stage caused a couple brief blackouts in the radio signal as it passed in between the descent stage's low-gain antenna and Earth. She'll burn up in the atmosphere. She was good to us.

I'm shaking. 

0 minutes, 5 seconds.

Tango-delta nominal. Bridle cut. GNC done. Pyro fire. Closed-loop flyaway controller active. 

It's dead in here.

0 seconds.

We're on the surface of Mars. "Flight, spacecraft mode is SURFACE-NOMINAL"


I believe. That just happened. It really just actually happened. 

While people are debating whether or not you're a bigot based on your desire to consume a chicken sandwich, we got busy landing a robot on Mars. 

I believe. That just happened. It really just actually happened.

While people are going through places of entertainment or worship and opening fire with semi-automatic weapons, we got busy celebrating a multi-country achievement dedicated to all of humanity.

I believe. That just happened. It really just actually happened. 

While people were complaining about $2.5 billion dollars wasted on thinking metal, we got busy looking at pictures of actual wheels of an actual car on an actual other planet.

Yup. There are those pictures, but on the big screen in the CMSA. It hit me like a concrete wall: I believe. I see it, and I believe it. It's there.

And now I can also believe with an intense satisfaction that what I — we —  did and still do with MER is real, too. It may have taken an overpowering experience of seeing a real achievement happen in real time to get me to believe this, but at least something did it. They say that you'll always remember the day you got married, the day your kid was born, and your first Mars landing. I'm not married, I don't have kids, but I now have a Mars landing under my belt. One day later, the nerves still aren't gone. I will sure as hell remember this day. 

Those pictures we look at every day — and boy, do I still peruse the MER pictures every day — are real. The dust-covered, low-resolution images from MSL's landing make this all the more apparent. Those images are really not even on this planet. That's really a car with wheels and solar panels and a crippled arm. It's real.

Now, I must keep calm, and I must carry on exploring. 

We have a new robot that's also doing real things, for real, on another real planet. A real robot with a real older cousin with 3000 real sols under its belt, with no desire or need or, might I say, ability to quit on its own. 

Here's to us. Here's to the people that believe in us.


*DDOR = Delta Differential One-Way Ranging. Gives us velocity of the spacecraft in a particular direction with incredible precision.
**The irony of this statement is not lost on me.

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