Spirit Sol 28

Apparently we screwed up a comm window setting or something. No driving tomorrow (not that we were going to drive so soon anyway). We might IDD.

At the downlink assessment meeting, we learn that they're also not going to trash the flash tomorrow. Trashing the flash would have freed up enough room for us to do 30Mbits of science downlink for tomorrow, but now that's not going to happen. The big activity for tomorrow will be a simple MTES checkout sequence so that we can use the MTES for real on sol 29.

We've detected magnetite in Adirondack, and Tom Wdowiak gives a short presentation on the implications of this finding for the proposed Noachian Martian "dynamo." (The MB results clearly show magnetite and olivine. It's not completely certain that Adirondack is a basaltic rock, but its overall composition is typical of an olivine basalt.) Adirondack is near a region of observed magnetic anomalies on Mars (a region jokingly called the "Bermuda Triangle" by the scientists). The shock of the impact that created the Gusev crater would have erased the local record of this Martian dynamo, just as dropping a magnet can sometimes destroy its magnetism. But Adirondack may have a record of this magnetism. Gathering more information about this may be vitally important for understanding early Mars: a magnetic field on early Mars would have affected the interactions of the solar wind and the atmosphere, and understanding how the early field is now recorded is a clue to the details.

Jake Matijevic reports that the task-trace script we've been trying to run on board the rover for the last few days has worked at last. The contents of the flash filesystem are now known, and we're looking at what to recover. We didn't reestablish CBM nominal mode today, so the rover is going to stay in low-power mode. Consequently, no sequences can run tonight, but we can operate the payload from 1400-1600 LSTA[1] and uplink the gathered data in the ODY pass. Jennifer Trosper has somewhat more cheering news: the spacecraft booted normally today and mounted the flash filesystem without entering a reset loop. (The scientists applaud.)

In honor of this news, I propose to Jennifer and Mark Adler, the day's mission managers, that we should use "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (by The Rolling Stones) as a wakeup song in the next couple of days. ("Well, it's all right now, in fact it's a gas / Well, it's all right / Jumpin' Jack Flash, it's a gas, gas, gas!") They like the idea, so I snag a copy of the song from iTunes (I sense a pattern developing) and send it to them.

I don't have any sequences to deliver for tomorrow, so I revisit the White Boat traverse I planned out yesterday. I decide that bypassing Adirondack is excessively paranoid even for me (which is saying something), so I plan two other traverses that both pass straight over Adirondack. I now have three different ways of getting to White Boat, which should be plenty.

Tonight is Opportunity's egress. John Wright is going to be down in the press room, handling any media requests, so I go by to wish him luck and he's not there. The Media Office asks if I can fill in for him. I start to mumble an excuse but then cut myself short. "That's the wrong answer," I say. "Here's the right answer: When do you need me?" They laugh and applaud.

I go and get some nasty food from Jack in the Box first, and by the time I come back they've gotten in touch with John; he's going to handle interviews from home. So I decide to blow out of there, but they ask me to stay anyway, in case anyone wants an on-camera interview. (Which I'm not really dressed for, but that doesn't seem to bother them.) It turns out there's no on-camera interviewing needed after all, though I do handle a couple of call-in interviews (one with the AP, and a short live interview with AP Radio). Mostly I just hang out with the media folks, who are really nice and always make a point of thanking me. Which makes it easier that I'm not in the SMSA for the actual egress. Opportunity sends back a beautiful rear HAZCAM image of its wheel tracks leading away from the lander, looking like the first footprints after a snowfall. Twelve wheels on dirt! (Or "two six-packs," as someone puts it.)

I need to sleep before tomorrow's shift, so I don't stick around for the press conference (which makes me feel even more disconnected from this event). I watch it at home while getting ready for bed. Maybe it's just because I'm watching from a distance, or because I'm distracted, but it seems to be an abbreviated version of itself. Whatever. The second it's over, I turn off the TV and instantly fall asleep, Zenobia[2] purring as she snoozes on my chest.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Opportunity looks back at her lander. We now have twelve wheels on Mars.


[1] That is, 2-4PM, local solar time for MER-A (Spirit). (Noon local solar time can be intuitively defined as: when the sun is overhead wherever you happen to be.) Essentially, Jake's message is: sorry, science team, but today you get the rover for only a couple of hours in the afternoon.

[2] My orange tabby. I miss her.


Spirit Sol 27

I have one interview scheduled for today: the Dallas Morning News. I decide to make this interview go better than yesterday's interviews, by sheer willpower if I have to, with some success. The only real mistake I make is one that I made once or twice before, but recognized as a mistake only today: when she asks me what I'm doing while I have no rover to drive, I say, "I'm doing press." Which I think is funny, but now that I think about it, the press is going to see that as an insult, not as a joke. Oops. So that's the last time I say that. There's always a better way to spin it, anyway: "I'm taking advantage of this relatively uncommitted time to try to share some of my enthusiasm for this project with the public." My first way was funnier, though.

I also miss an opportunity at the end of the interview. She asks what I'll feel when the mission is over, and I tell her that I'll feel sad that the rovers are gone but proud of what we've accomplished. Which is OK, but I should have emphasized that the scientific gains will continue even after the rovers go silent -- Pathfinder's data is still being analyzed, seven years later, and we're sending back way more data than Pathfinder. But this is a minor omission at worst, and I'll look at it as a learning experience. Somebody else will ask that question; I'll get another chance to do it right. I call this a win. Score one for willpower.

Rick Welch doesn't know what's wrong with Spirit, either. Seems nobody does. We talk about it for a little while anyway.

There actually is a downlink assessment meeting today, so I go. We've lost a lot of time, so they're trying to optimize the future, to save a sol anywhere they can. I try to get them to tell me where they plan to drive, so I can plan ahead, but it's too early. I listen carefully to the discussion and hit them up afterwards, after they've had a little more discussion time. They want to go to a white rock named White Boat, and they don't care about Sleepy Hollow (which would be the other direction). Bingo.

There's a running discussion about our needing to drive. Opportunity has a lot of reasons to stay in its local region; there's a lot of science in the crater that won't be available outside of the crater. They'll be there until sol 30 or 40, another three or four weeks, at least. It's different with Spirit: the stuff around Spirit now is the same kind of stuff we'll see along the way to the crater that lies to the northeast ("Bonneville"). We need to study Adirondack more, but part of full mission success means driving 1km with at least one rover, and we don't want to put pressure on them to be the ones to drive. So we're going to. Which would be great, if only we could actually get moving.

Matt Golombek says Opportunity may not be in the crater we thought it was in. They don't have all the EDL data yet, and we can't see much of the surrounding world from inside the crater, so that makes it hard to tell where we are. "Are you sure we're on Mars?" someone asks. "We don't know where we are, but we're in a great spot," Matt says.

The Spirit mission is gearing back up. Normal schedule resumes tomorrow. "Vacation's over," says Dave Des Marais, who's running the meeting. "We're back in business." White Boat is a flat, 40cm-wide rock almost straight south from the lander, southeast of our current position. Driving there will nearly double our current mileage (6.14m). Our goal is to get about 1m to 2m away, MTES it, then decide whether to IDD it or move on.

I spend much of the rest of the day working on a candidate White Boat traverse. My first cut at it is the most conservative possible approach: back away from Adirondack, turn 90 degrees, and drive completely around Adirondack to go to White Boat. This is unnecessarily paranoid, since we have about 10cm of clearance over Adirondack, but I can just see myself coming in the first day after the drive to learn we've gotten the rover stuck permanently on Adirondack. So I go out of my way -- more precisely, I have the rover go out of its way -- to avoid this.

While I'm planning the traverse, Ashitey passes on an unusual request from Bob Bonitz. We're releasing Opportunity's IDD for the first time tonight, and Bob wants us to play a particular song for the occasion: Englebert Humperdinck's "Release Me." The request has come to me because I'm a Mac guy among other things, and they're hoping I'll know how to get the song off of Apple's iTunes Music Service. As it happens, iTMS doesn't have the Englebert Humperdinck version of the song, but they do have a wonderfully cheesy Elvis cover, which turns out to be a big hit and prompts a round of applause in the SMSA.

At the end of the night, John Wright and I have a lengthy discussion about HyperDrive's various levels of modeling and how to use them. I don't think anybody but John really understands this, but after his explanation, I understand it as well as he does. At one point the conversation turns to my own recent frustrations with SEQGEN. As I start getting worked up about it, John says, "We've got the greatest job in the world, right? And we're not gonna let SEQGEN take that away from us." Fuckin' A.


Spirit Sol 26

Just as I was going to sleep, a coyote attacked a neighborhood cat. I ran outside to try to save the cat, scared off the coyote, ran inside to call Animal Control to come help the cat -- and when I got back outside, the cat was gone. It seemed too badly wounded to get away by itself -- it was barely able to raise its head to croak sadly at me when I tried to comfort it -- and I couldn't find it anywhere when I looked around for it. So I think the coyote came back and got it while I was inside. Which might be just as well.

So when I wake up a couple of hours later to call the wacky morning show, I'm in a really good mood. I'm upset about the cat, and not focused on the bit, and when they ask me whom I favor in the Super Bowl, I don't even know who's playing. Turns out the right answer is: Carolina Panthers. A Raleigh station is interviewing me because I grew up in Rocky Mount. The local team is in the Super Bowl. It's the kind of thing I'm supposed to know.

I go back to bed.

The day's other interviews go better, though maybe it would be stretching things to say they go well. One is with the Pasadena Star-News, the next with the New York Times. I joke with the Star-News reporter that she's scooping the New York Times, and she laughs at that. I get along with her OK, but otherwise the interview is not especially memorable. The New York Times guy doesn't seem to be terribly interested in me; I almost get the sense that he's interviewing me as a way to get rid of me. Which seems like a strange thing to do, since he asked for the interview. Maybe I misread him.

I also have phone interviews with the Silicon Valley News, whose reporter has way too much energy for me, and with Yediot Ahronot[1], an Israeli newspaper. That one goes well, I think, except that at one point I use the phrase "exploding with joy," which is not a smart phrase to use around people who deal with suicide bombers every day. (Not that I think he cared or even noticed, but I cringe when I think about it.) He's interested in what is, for him, the local angle -- the Columbia memorial plaque on the rovers. So I make sure to mention Ilian Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, who was one of the astronauts who died on that mission.

Come to think of it, today kind of sucked.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Sol-2 NAVCAM image showing the Columbia memorial plaque on the back of the HGA. There's one of these on both rovers, as well as one on our testbed rover.

[1] My Israeli friend, Rafi, was highly impressed by this. Driving a rover on Mars, not so much. But being interviewed by Yediot Ahronot, that made him look at me with respect.


Spirit Sol 25

I spend a lazy day with Candy, getting the car washed and stuff like that. And I even go to aikido. It's odd how comforting the routine of life can be, when you've been away from it for just a little while. I suppose that's because you spend so much time working on it, crafting it to fit you. When you slip back into it, it's like putting on a pair of comfy old shoes.

Later, I go into work. I should never have taken a day off. In addition to the other pile of email that stacked up, I got about a hundred (well, three) email messages from the media office regarding various interviews. D'oh!

One of the potential interviews is with Chopper & Jimmy on WBBB, the Raleigh morning show I did once before, and I decide I'll call them again even though it means getting up in the middle of my night. Because they were nice to me, so what the heck.

It's now midnight and I'm supposed to call them at 7AM. I look up their Web site and try to call to leave a message for them, to let them know that the interview is on, and I speak to the rudest person on the Eastern seaboard, who doesn't want to take a message or give me the secret magic phone number where I can leave them one myself. So I send them email, hope for the best, and go home.


Spirit Sol 24

I take the day off.

[And here's how I feel about that, five years later.


Well, OK, not really. There was nothing going on on Spirit, and my attitude was slipping some -- I'd been working a lot of overtime even before landing, and I'd had a stressful month without a single day off.

So this is probably exactly what I needed, to recharge my own batteries and be able to properly enjoy the experience again. But I wish it hadn't been.

Oh, yeah, and: as far as I know, only one person on MER -- Bob Deen -- worked the entire 90 sols of our prime mission without taking a single day off. And he's never let me forget it.]


Spirit Sol 23

We're into slack time as we continue to wait for the anomaly team to complete its work. Like the other rover drivers, I'm officially released for the moment, but I go to work anyway, late in the evening. Opportunity has sent back a PANCAM postcard, which is showing in the SMSA, and she has an unexplained 0.5-amp current draw[1], but there's little other news from either spacecraft.

So I catch up on my email. There's one nice one from the project, relaying some of the supportive email that's been sent in from the public. That always happens at times like this, and it's quite a morale booster. The email also includes (as it always does) suggestions about what might be wrong and how to fix it. This is never useful in a purely technical sense, but the idea that people around the world are taking the mission personally enough to think about the problem and write in to try to help -- that's a wonderful thing. They might never fix the problem, but I wouldn't want them to stop trying.

I also run into Richard Kornfeld, who tells me that the Swiss TV producer liked the bit with me. So I might be a cameraman and a big star. In Switzerland.



[1] Considerably more ominous than I realized. This turned out to be a stuck-on heater in the shoulder joint of Opportunity's robotic arm. The heater draws so much energy that we eventually had to start turning Opportunity completely off at night -- not even letting her run her survival heaters.

This same stuck-on heater is the reason Opportunity's shoulder joint eventually failed: it gets so hot that the temperature swing for that joint is much more extreme than for any other part of the spacecraft, and eventually a wire broke in response. Imagine taking your laptop from Antarctica to Death Valley and back again -- every single day, for years. That's what was happening to Opportunity's shoulder. It's amazing, really amazing, that it lasted as long as it did.


Spirit Sol 22

There's nothing I can do to help Spirit, so I decide to do something to keep my mind off of it, something I haven't done in weeks: I go to aikido. (Robin[1] has the LA Times with my picture in it, and he convinces me to sign it. I tell him that this officially means I'm famous.) I spend most of the day helping a couple of the newer people study for their 5th-kyu tests, and at the end we do a rondori, which is just what I needed. Five guys running full-tilt straight at you from all directions, with barely enough time after you throw one to get ready to throw the next, will take your mind off of lesser problems, or nothing will. It does. Bliss.

I return home and get ready to go to JPL for Opportunity's landing. They tell us to dress up a little in case we're on TV, but I decide to wear my "Rover Driver" T-shirt. I'm a rover driver, damn it, whether I've got a rover to drive or not. I turn on NASA TV to see what's up, and it turns out I have a rover to drive after all. Spirit is back!

After the rover boots, it sets up a file system in flash memory. If this doesn't succeed, it reboots and tries again. For some reason -- they still don't know why -- this is what it's been doing. To fix it, they sent it a command that says not to use the flash-memory file system, to use the volatile RAM instead. And it worked!

Pete cautions that Spirit may be stuck here for a few weeks yet, which sounds pessimistic to me -- we'll have a workaround and updated processes before that, surely. But then, it's part of his job to be pessimistic.

More and more, Spirit really does come to resemble a drama queen. In cruise, she scared us by making us think her Moessbauer spectrometer was broken, only to have it turn out fine on the surface. All eyes were on her when she stopped talking to us for ten or twelve heart-stopping minutes during landing -- only to turn out she was fine all along. She does a little pirouette on the lander, glides to the surface, does another little pirouette -- all flawless. But wait! Here comes her twin sister, ready to steal the spotlight. So what does she do? She throws a tantrum. So this is nothing. She'll be fine.

At JPL, Richard Kornfeld asks me to be his cameraman for a story he's filming for Swiss TV. I've never been a cameraman for Swiss TV before, so what the hell. This turns out to entail following Richard around the SMSA with a handheld Sony DV camera while he points at things and talks in German. I tell him I want a cameraman credit. (And I do: I can't wait to tell people that I'm a cameraman for Swiss TV, and when they don't believe me, I haul out the tape .... Damn, I'm weird.) At one point, our roles are partly reversed -- he points the camera at me, and says something in German about how I'm a rover driver. (Or that's what I assume he's saying; maybe all of Switzerland will shortly believe that I'm the official project prostitute, or something.) I can't help wondering if this bit will end up in the final product, which will make my life even weirder.

The CMSA is showing on the TV. Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger are here, though not visible yet -- they'll show up as soon as there's a successful landing to associate themselves with. I wonder if I'll get to meet them and not have my picture taken with them. Wayne Lee is wearing his US flag shirt again.

As we watch, the Mechanisms guys are discussing what Rob Manning's job will be after Opportunity's EDL succeeds.[2] That'll make it three for three, a stunning achievement. Joel [Krajewski] says that after three successful EDLs, you just walk around and they pay you forever. They make you a fellow, give you a robe, and you never have to work again. Well, he's earned it. If this works. We also compare working on MER to working in Vegas: the place is blacked out, we get lots of comps (rooms, ice cream[3], water), and we're spending $4 million a day.[4]

Todd Litwin shows up and starts poring over some code. Todd wrote the file system code for the rovers, which means he's the guy who would know the real story on the failure, as well as anyone does yet. He says he doesn't think the file system was the culprit. It's a pretty simple affair, and the flight software looks for problems and fixes them at startup. It is possible that the file system was corrupted by the continual rebooting, though, and there are more aggressive self-checks he's thinking of enabling. But he doesn't think it's his fault.

At some point in the distant past, Craig Leff used to be a scientist -- a geologist, specifically -- and he's hanging out with us, so I ask him some questions about the rocks in Spirit's vicinity. He tells me that Adirondack and its neighbors look, to him, like pahoehoe, a kind of volcanic rock you find in Hawaii. The rock has quartz embedded in it, and as it weathers the softer rock around the quartz erodes most, leaving the rock with a faceted appearance similar to that caused by impact stress. The same kind of weathering can also produce the grooves we see on Sashimi.

On the TV, Pete is pacing relentlessly. The stress of the situation is written all over his face. Wayne Lee is doing airplane jokes ("If you had looked out the left side of the spacecraft, you would have seen Valles Marineris ... on behalf of the entire EDL team, we'd like to thank you for flying with us ...."), which actually make Pete laugh.

Much as happened with Spirit, EDL is upon us before I know it. It's a weird feeling, knowing it's all over, for good or ill, already. Thanks to light-time delays, when we look at Mars, we're looking at ten minutes ago, so the spacecraft is already on the ground -- one way or another -- before we even see it hit the top of the atmosphere. What's odd about EDL this time is that there's no data dropout; we stop bouncing almost immediately after we land, so we don't lose contact. And we hit with very little force, only about 2 or 3 Gs, which means we probably didn't drop from very far up. Good thing they decided to deploy the parachute earlier, I guess.

The place explodes with joy, of course, and just as I predicted, Arnold and Al come out of the woodwork almost as soon as our success is known. The news continues to flow in as the spacecraft rolls (or not -- this turns out to be an artifact of radio self-interference) and lands, once again, base petal down (or not -- turns out we're +Y down, landing on our side for the first time).

Another item in our "how you know you've made it" series: Geraldo is talking about us on Fox News, interviewing some JPLer[5], and when he's done with us he segues into a story about J. Lo.

There's a wait of a couple of hours before the pictures come in. Frank and I talk about how astonishing it is that we work here, that this is what we do for a living. He and John are putting together a proposal to write software to remote-control (from Earth) the bulldozers that will build the President's proposed moon base -- who knows more about it than the guys who drive Mars rovers? The past few years I keep saying I'm living in the future, and it keeps getting more and more true.

This time, I'm actually in the SMSA when the images start flowing. I followed my sneaky plan of stealing in at the last minute, to avoid getting kicked out, and it turns out that probably wasn't necessary. They don't seem to be quite as fascistic this time. Sean O'Keefe is there, and I intend to get my picture taken with him, but in all the confusion that doesn't happen, making me 0 for 3 this evening.

Everyone is learning to cluster around Justin's workstation, since that's where the images appear first, and I get prime real estate. When the pictures do start flowing, Squyres is once more overjoyed. Indeed, he's more excited about Opportunity's landing site than he was about Spirit's, and she's not going to like that. Looks like the scientists who decided to gamble on Opportunity, including Squyres himself, won.

What remains of the evening is almost a formality. Fascinating pictures of a new place, trooping over to von Karman to watch the press conference in person, printing out a few pictures before I leave for the night, that sort of thing. I'm living in the future, and I like it here.

Leo's on Geraldo!

The press conference gears up.

At the press conference, Squyres, Soderblom, and Wallace (among others) discuss the first images from Opportunity. Above their heads is a color image of the soil inside Eagle Crater.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Opportunity opens her eyes on a new world.


[1] Robin Mitsui, an instructor at the dojo.

[2] Rob Manning was in charge of EDL for Mars Pathfinder, as well as for Spirit and Opportunity. Martian EDL has a high failure rate, but Rob is so far batting 1000.

[3] Oh, yeah, the free ice cream. At a MER All-Hands meeting a while before landing, Elachi asked us if there was anything the Lab could do for us, and someone yelled out "free ice cream!" We got it -- and it was good stuff, too. I'm already thinking about what I'm going to yell out next time Elachi asks that question.

[4] Not intended to be literally true. Someone -- I think it was Jennifer Trosper -- came up with this as a useful way to think about the value of each sol. Here's where that number comes from:

Very roughly, MER cost $800 million for the prime mission -- that's including design, development, testing, launch, cruise, and the first 90 sols of surface ops. So you figure it's about $800 million for about 200 combined sols on the surface; that's about $4 million per sol.

However, ops itself is actually comparatively cheap; most of the mission cost goes into simply getting you to Mars. (Launch costs alone were about $100 million per rover, I believe, a quarter of our total mission budget.) We now run the rovers for something like $20 million per year, total, so the per-sol cost of the mission goes down the longer you last. Now, more than 3500 combined sols into the mission, our comparable amortized per-sol cost over the whole project is merely $285,000 or so -- and still falling.

However, at the time, we very firmly believed MER cost about $4 million per sol (in the above sense). So you didn't want to be the guy responsible for blowing a sol, you really didn't. If you make $100,000 per year for 40 years -- a rather long working lifetime -- that's $4 million. Think about it. In some sense, I believed that something close to all the value I would bring to the Lab in my entire working lifetime could be wiped out by a single mistake.

[5] Leo Bister. Sorry, Leo, I didn't know you then.


Spirit Sol 21

I wake up feeling much better, and after I hear the news on the radio I feel better still. We got data! KNX says we got 24 minutes' worth of data at the low rate, less than 8 bits per second. I immediately do the math in my head: 1400 precious bytes of data. Not much, but it's bound to help. And just the fact that we're getting data is good.

At JPL, I find clusters of worried people. I decide not to interfere with any of them; I have nothing to add, and I've got my own work to do anyway. I get back to work on my SCMF decoder.

Sure enough, sleep helped. In a couple of hours, I've nailed all of the remaining problems and put together a system for comparing the three sets of files. While I let that grind away, periodically making minor tweaks to improve the comparisons further, I watch the press conference on my Mac.

Today's story is better than yesterday's, and better than I heard on the radio. We got some data at 10bps and some at 120bps. The story is also worse: Pete says we expect no fix for days, maybe weeks.

To keep the whole press conference from being about Spirit's problems, they remind the press that Opportunity is landing tomorrow. And they talk about the Spirit EDL reconstruction. They show the video of the descent, built from actual data downlinked from Spirit; I've been hearing a lot about this video, which apparently has been floating around for a while, but I haven't seen it before. They also show images Mike Malin's MOC camera, aboard MGS, took of Spirit's landing site. You can see the bounce marks, the heat shield, and the lander itself. Mike Malin is insane! It's incredible that we can even do this -- we not only have a rover on another planet, we're taking pictures of the thing from 400km up!

But the reporters are naturally focused on what's wrong with Spirit -- as we are, to be fair. They ask Pete to make a medical analogy, and he tells them that if Spirit were in the hospital, its condition would be critical. I know instantly that that will be plastered all over the news, and I turn out to be right. Argh. They don't know what's wrong with Spirit yet, either. It might be a hardware "event"; we don't know what, or whether we can work around it. In response to a question about how we're handling this anomaly while Opportunity is coming down, Pete reassures them that we've split the teams, forcibly in some cases, thanks to the fact that "anomalies, to engineers, have a natural gravitational force."

So Spirit's broken, we don't know what's wrong with it, and we're not getting much data to help us figure it out. Until evening, when, to everyone's surprise, we get 73 Mbits during an Odyssey pass. Now that's more like it, Spirit, baby.


Spirit Sol 20

Jeng says it's very bad. No word from Spirit.

I stop by the sequencing MSA anyway, just out of habit. Frank's there.

"No news is bad news?" I ask.

"That's correct," he says.

"What can we do?"

He shrugs, but with a worried expression. "I'd be doing it."

He's set up RSVP to show Spirit as it was the last time we got word from it, with the sun, Earth, Phobos, and Deimos wheeling around it in real time.

The daily press conference comes on. Pete Theisinger and Richard Cook are earning their paychecks. It doesn't look like there's a single cause. They've run the same sequences in the testbed that were running on Spirit, and nothing goes wrong, which suggests it's a hardware problem. Spirit is acting erratically, making some comm passes -- though cutting them short -- and missing others altogether. The data it's sending back, when it sends anything, hasn't been much help so far.

Randy Lindemann comes in to watch the press conference with us. We got a beep[1] ten minutes ago, he says. This is really good: the computer's OK, and a bunch of things in a line from the computer to the antenna have to be OK as well.

Henry Stone also drops by, characterizing the beeps as "good and solid." The spacecraft is telling us it's in a fault mode, but we don't know which mode or why. We sent a comm window[2] but did so close to Earth-set, so we may get no data. Spirit is sick but alive. Drama queen!

Just as they're ending their statements, Pete and Richard get the news about the beep. Obviously relieved, they report it to the press. This is good: instead of "Spirit Dead," the headlines will read "NASA Hears From Spirit."

I go hang out in the SMSA for a little while, but there's not much news. We might have uplinked the comm window during the Odyssey comm pass, in which case Spirit wasn't listening. We wait for it anyway. Earth sets. There's no real chance we'll get data now, but the DSN continues to listen for a few minutes, in case a signal is on its way. Chris Voorhees says: "It's actually amazing in some sense that it took 19 days for this to happen. ... So we just declare a PORTism[3], clear the errors, and move on, right?" We keep waiting. Nothing.

But we're commandable at 7.8125 bps. It was a good day in its way. They tell the subsystems people to go home, report back at 7PM. They don't need rover drivers at all at this point; we can go home until further notice.

Screw that. My spacecraft needs me. I go to the 430B conference room. They're running down a list of things that need doing, and most of them are things I don't know enough about to help with. I listen patiently for something I might be able to help with. Arthur Amador notices me and asks if I've seen an ISA[4] that got filed last night. I haven't, so I check my email. Saina Ghandchi reported what sounds like a weird bug in RoSE, so I check it out. I can't find any sign of the reported bug, with good reason as it turns out: the problem is not because of a bug in RoSE after all. (Though I have a nasty moment when it looks like there really is a bug, and I realize it maybe could have produced problems for the spacecraft, maybe the problems they're seeing now.) They run a script to prepare the day's master sequence, and they ran it twice instead of once. The resulting file looked weird when they opened it in RoSE, so RoSE got the blame. OK by me: I like bug reports that turn out like that. I return to the assemblage of the worried.

They're still listing things that need to be done. It's amazing how little I can help. Then they mention something that's right up my alley. We compose our commands in a MER-specific XML-based format called RML, and then we convert RML to a legacy format called SSF, and convert that to another format called SCMF, the binary format that goes to the rover. They want to be sure that what went to the rover is what we think we sent, so we need to compare sol 17's RML, SSF, and SCMF files to ensure that they're consistent with each other. They're actually talking about getting someone to go through the files manually, comparing hundreds of commands and their arguments. Insane. That's a job for a computer if I ever saw one. I tell them I'll take care of it.

I could have sworn there was already software to decode SCMFs, but I look around and ask around, and can't find it. So I'll have to write it myself. I spend the rest of my day reverse-engineering the format. It's fun, actually, and the kind of thing I haven't done in a long time -- staring at a pile of 1s and 0s and figuring out what it all means, then encoding that understanding in the software I'm writing. I get to the point where I don't need the software to do the job any more; even in the binary formats, I can find commands and their arguments by eye. I feel just like a Mars rover.

By the end of the day my SCMF decoder is working, more or less. It still has a number of minor problems, plus two that really stand out. First, the software doesn't understand the format used for floating-point numbers, but that will be easy enough to fix; I just haven't had time for it yet. The other problem is more serious. SCMFs are divided into chunks called "messages," and while my decoder works for commands within a message, it doesn't understand where messages begin and end -- because I don't, either. It looks like there's a field in the message that tells you how long the rest of the message is, but it's inconsistent -- the number in that field is larger for large messages, shorter for short ones, more or less in proportion to the actual message length. But not exactly, and software demands exactitude.

Well, there was a story in the morning's newspaper about a study that proves what we all knew: sleep helps you fix problems like this. I decide to make my own personal contribution to the field of sleep research by going home and getting nine hours of sleep.


[1] A radio signal.

[2] That is, we told Spirit when to call home.

[3] Our name for an error that crops up during an operational readiness test. When it happens in the testbed, you cheat: learn the lesson, fix the problem as fast as you can, and move on, so that you can continue getting value out of the test. We had lots of PORTisms during our many pre-landing tests; by contrast, surface operations had generally gone amazingly well.

[4] Incident/Surprise/Anomaly report. It's sort of a generalized bug report, but not just for software problems; it includes hardware problems, manual errors in operations, and so on.


Spirit Sol 19

As I'm coming in, Jeng Yen tells me it's going to be a slow day. Bad weather over Australia interfered with our comm link, so the day's sequences didn't get uplinked. They tried to save the sol by uplinking later through Madrid, but ran into some other problem when they did so. No RAT today.

In a way, that's a good thing. The MI team has been carefully examining their recent images, and they appear to have come from a spot nearer to Blue than to Prospect. This could indicate a potentially serious IDD positioning error, so Frank is checking out the playback and imaging. But he's already skeptical, because so far everything looks right. It's still possible that the rover settled overnight, sinking slightly into the soil while the IMU was off. Which is unlikely, and would suck, but it is possible.

A developer for some other software on the project is trying to push me into debugging their problem. I wouldn't fall for it, except that I went to hear Andy Mishkin talk about his book last night, and one of his answers to an audience question was about the importance of having people on your team who will step up to the plate and solve problems that aren't strictly in their own domain .... Bah, stupid conscience. So I solve the damn problem for them -- it turns out they hadn't delivered the file they thought they'd delivered, they'd delivered an older version or something. Grr.

Fixing that problem makes me late to the downlink assessment meeting once more. But not very late, at least. As I arrive, Eric is telling them that as far as we can tell, we really did put the MI on Prospect, not Blue. It's possible there's been some camera drift since the cameras were calibrated, but that wouldn't be enough to account for the claimed error. He asks for help in assessing whether there was an error and where it was if so.

In response, the scientists seem to be backpedaling a little. But there is doubt. It's a hard problem, taking a micro-view of an area and fitting it precisely into a macro-view of the same area. Someone likens it to the localization problem -- figuring out exactly where we landed. It's an apt comparison, and since that problem took a few days to solve, so might this one. They form a "tiger team" (I hate that phrase, but I love tigers, so it balances out) to solve it.

I am interrupted by a phone call from the Milwaukee TV guy whose interview I missed yesterday. We do our little five-minute thing on the air. I think I'm getting better at this, making only one real mistake: early in the interview, he asks for some numbers, and I give them to him. Understand that this really is an error: instead of telling him that the rover traverses 1cm per second on average, I should tell him how long it takes for the rover to cover a football field or something. Even when you're only a phone voice on the TV, you need to think in terms of pictures.

A good answer would have been something like this: "When you take a step, that's about three feet. The rover takes maybe 30 to 90 seconds to cover that same distance. But then, the rover weighs four hundred pounds and uses only about as much power as two light bulbs, so you can't expect it to go too fast even in Mars's lower gravity." Bam, that's an answer. It has the numbers, but it's packed with imagery.

Anyway, other than that, I think I did OK. One strange thing I've noticed about phone interviews is that they actually hang up when it's over. I kind of expected that they'd stop taping or whatever and then talk to you a little more, but no, it's wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. (Actually, the Raleigh guys did talk to me for a few moments after we stopped taping. Maybe that's Southern politeness.)

Back in the meeting, Phil Christensen (MTES) is talking about interferograms. The MTES, he says, measures the delta radiance between itself and the outside world. The best operating time they've found so far is about 1PM, because then the MTES is warm (it's inside the WEB) and the surface is cooling. But that analysis was done on the lander; they may need to reanalyze the situation on the surface. They also have this problem where they sometimes get the sign of the delta wrong, so that things that are in fact very warm look very cold. They can fix this by changing the flight software, but it might take a while to validate everything and convince the FSW people to patch the rovers.

Art comes in and says we got no Odyssey telemetry, so there will be no science tomorrow. Sol 19 will definitely be a recovery sol. Art is a smart guy and leaves before they can lynch him.

In another blow to science, they're paring back on the stand-down sols [during the Opportunity landing], which are coming up soon. The sequences for those sols originally optimistically assumed a 400Mbits/sol downlink, but we've been averaging more like 180Mbits/sol. So they've cut a lot of stuff out.

One happy consequence of a recovery sol is: no SOWG today. They have an informal version of it, but it's almost nothing like the real thing. The chair reports a lot of concern about the spacecraft, since the AM comm was erratic and we've heard nothing from the spacecraft since then. But Andy thinks the rover just overheated, in which case it will naturally be OK as it cools, and we're fine. I'm not worrying about it.

Coming up: RAT on sol 20, spectroscopy of the resulting hole on sol 21. This will continue through the stand-down. There's some discussion of whether we should analyze the soil instead of Adirondack during the stand-down, but the sentiment (and resulting vote) is overwhelmingly for the rock. We've done soil already, and "soil is everywhere," as someone points out. Rock beats soil.

Arvidson ends the meeting, saying, "Why don't we just end school early -- it's a snow day." There's a mixed feeling of tension and relief as the room empties.


Spirit Sol 18

Oops. Due to some overly aggressive sequencing, yesterday's master sequence had a command to wait until a time that was about 18 seconds too late. So the spacecraft, following the rules, rejected it. The ops team noticed and fixed this during the day, so they missed the morning science but got our IDD sequences kicked off.

Another oops, this one mine: I was supposed to be available for some phone interview at 6 AM or so -- a live interview on WITI-6 TV, a Fox affiliate in Milwaukee (save your Mary Tyler Moore jokes). I thought the interview was later in the day. But I called the guy back and got it set up for tomorrow.

But even if everything here on Earth is screwed up, at least Spirit is doing well. Specifically, the MI is healthy and is sending back beautiful data (which everyone immediately crowds around in the science downlink assessment meeting). Arvidson gives everyone a little time to admire the images, then says, "OK, can we get back to work now?" And someone says, "No!"

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. A microscopic image of Adirondack, showing the fine-grained dust on its surface.

The RAT guy, who's been analyzing the feasibility of using the RAT on Adirondack, praises the "fabulous RSVP tools." It's not really my stuff he's praising here, it's Frank's visualization stuff and Jeng's kinematic stuff more than anything else. I'm filled with pride anyway. He shows pictures from RSVP simulations and pictures from their New York labs demonstrating that they can RAT the chosen spots. Naturally, since this is the first Mars use of the RAT, they're going to be careful, applying only about 60N of force (about what you feel when you hold a 13-pound bowling ball). They can ratchet it up to 100N of force (about 22 pounds) later.

LTP points out a rock that resembles an ammonite and jokes that we've found evidence of invertebrate life on Mars. (But if it were an ammonite, that would count as evidence of a Martian ocean. Hello, free shrimp!) More seriously, he cautions against the desire to check out every little thing, speaking of it as a "trap."

Later, the SOWG is its usual self. It turns out I'm not the only one who finds it a grueling experience: when I tell him I'm here on my day off, Mike Malin calls me a glutton for punishment.


Spirit Sol 17

Today's my day off. Naturally, I go to work anyway. I don't plan to stick around for the whole day, but I figure I'll go to the downlink assessment meeting and maybe stay through the SOWG meeting. The rest of the time I can spend catching up on pretty pictures.

On my way in I glance at the LA Times in the newspaper dispenser. The column-one headline reads, "Kicking the Tires on Mars." That's the story I've been waiting for. I buy two copies. Reading the story, I'm relieved to see my worries about it were entirely misplaced. I'm also laughing as I read it, because of the ways in which it extends my utter lack of fame. I'm mentioned by name (including my middle initial, probably because that's how it is on the business card I gave them) but not quoted, and I'm in the inside-page picture but not listed in the caption. (Frank, Brian, and Chris are in the foreground, wearing the 3-D goggles; I'm barely visible in the background. This is the shot I figured the photographer wanted, and it's why I didn't put on the goggles while he was there. Team effort, man.) I naturally have my own caption for this image: "The other rover drivers and I drive the rover. Not pictured: me." Also not pictured is John, who was there but was off the right-hand side of the frame in this picture. So I guess John is even less famous than I am, if that's possible.

This puts me in a good mood. I have a couple of interviews scheduled for tomorrow, and all of a sudden I'm not worried about them, not in the slightest. I have a whole different attitude about that now. I show the paper to Frank and Brian; and Mark Maimone, who's quoted several times in the story, comes in with a stack of copies and starts handing them out. We're famous! Except me. And that's cool.

But now it's time for real work. The downlink assessment meeting is going well, with limited data downlinked so far but everything coming out as expected. In particular, yesterday's missing HAZCAM image has been acquired, so we can IDD the damn rock, already. On the projection screen is a thumbnail color PANCAM mosaic of the rover's look back at the lander. When we get the whole thing, it's bound to make the front page (making it more famous than we are, but I digress).

They've picked two RATable spots on Adirondack, named "Buck" and "Black," both of them kind of low on the rock face. (In unison, Frank, Brian, and I get up and walk over to the projection screen for a better look.) Squyres wants to work with higher spots on the rock because the rock surface looks cleaner there, but Eric hasn't been able to find a suitable target yet. So Buck or Black it is. After we're finished with Adirondack, we'll probably try to drive to one of the white rocks (probably the one named "White Boat") before we have to pause for Opportunity's landing.

They discuss some recent NAVCAM data of the wheel tracks, showing a nice close-up view of pebbles pressed into the soil by our traverse. Coooool.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Pebbles squished into the soil by Spirit.

Just as the meeting is ending, Squyres calls for volunteers to shift to Opportunity's landing site, Meridiani. This is a tough decision for the scientists: which site will yield more publishable papers, a better investment for the time they've put into this project? It's a gamble, the type that could make or break careers. At the moment, I don't mind not being in their shoes.

I go to the SOWG but mostly ignore it, instead hauling out my Mac so I can hack on our Linux Journal article, which is just about good enough to send out. We're just waiting for Opportunity to land. I keep enough of an ear out to hear that they've found two more RATable spots on Adirondack, "Blue" (apparently so that they'll have "Black" and "Blue") and "Prospect." The latter is now our #1 target because it's the highest and presumably cleanest of the four. The plan is to MI Prospect, then APXS it, then MB it, then RAT it, then MI again. I think. I'm missing a lot, working on the article. I promise myself I'll read the notes from the SOWG, but I don't. This meeting is boring when you're not in the hot seat, I reflect once more (meaning that it's boring when it's not terrifying). I decide it's time to go home.

It's the MLK holiday, so the JPL cafeteria is closed. Neither Frank nor I thought of that, but I'm free to go get food and he's not (since he's on shift and I'm not), so I offer to bring him something from off-Lab before I disappear altogether for the day. Unfortunately, this offer somehow starts to take on a life of its own, and Art Thompson asks whether I'm willing to do a food run for everybody. That's way more than I bargained for. I want to help out, but I know how this works: if I do it once, I'll get saddled with the job forever, and end up bitterly regretting it when I'm on shift. So I say no and bug out. And feel like an asshole, but to hell with it; I want to get out of there.

It's only 11:30 AM, and I don't have to go to sleep until 10 PM. Everything in between is mine. The day seems to stretch out endlessly; I can hardly decide what to do with the time. I decide to go book shopping and have lunch with Candy.

Just as Candy starts her lunch break, my cell phone rings. Cindy Oda and Brian are having a problem with something in the RoSE-SEQGEN interface, and it takes 15 minutes (during which time my cell phone battery dies and I have to call them back from Candy's phone) to track the problem down to a known SEQGEN bug. There's an easy workaround, but it irritates all of us and fouls Candy's mood. Damn it.


Spirit Sol 16

I wake up at 4:30, absurdly happy. Maybe the drive worked, maybe it didn't. I don't care. If it didn't happen today, it'll happen tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next. I have the greatest job in the world. I sing happily as I drive to work.

What I see when I get there makes me even happier: Adirondack is dead center in our field of view, just a little way in front of us. The drive was perfect, practically identical to RSVP's predictions, as Brian demonstrates. Nearly perfect, anyway; one of the last-minute changes Jeff and I made screwed up the last NAVCAM image, so Mark Maimone gets one less data point. (So we did get something wrong. Engineer that I am, this alone makes me feel better: the world is working as expected.) But the image we screwed up was the one we took from our final position; that means we can redo it today, since the rover hasn't moved in the meantime. If that's the worst mistake we make during the whole mission, I'll die of happiness.

I'm about to do that anyway.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. The view from Spirit's front HAZCAM after our first real drive, with the goal rock (Adirondack) dead center. We nailed it!

The SMSA is playing "Let the Good Times Roll," by the Cars. Mike Malin is there, literally bouncing up and down with excitement. I tell him: "That's exactly how I feel." Spirit's odometer now stands at 6.1 meters, total.

Eric's IDD sequence went fine, too (if it hadn't, they'd have skipped the drive), and it looks like we'll have more IDD stuff to do today. Eric is tired and needs to go home, but offers to stay and help with the day's IDDing. He's the expert, so I'd be an idiot to turn him down, and I don't. Brian and I watch him slap together the outlines of a couple of sequences. Happily, there's nothing surprising in what he does. We think we might be able to do it ourselves.

It helps a lot that Eric (and Jeff) are building sequences using a RoSE feature called macros. Macros are fantastically useful, but I couldn't manage to sell anyone on them, so I thought the feature would never get any use. Turns out I was wrong -- we've ended up using them to automate a large fraction of our work, which is especially important for us poor, chronically overworked rover drivers. Eric has the vast bulk of the work done in fifteen or twenty minutes, and we haven't even had the downlink assessment meeting yet.

The downlink assessment meeting is upbeat. Everyone knows the drive went well, so they're itching to start poking at Adirondack. The only cloud on the horizon is the lack of one of the images we need. After any drive, we need to take a stereo pair of front HAZCAM images, so that we'll have a 3-D model of the IDD workspace. Without that, we can't safely deploy the arm, much less do anything with it. The left image was complete, but the right image cut off about halfway, thanks to yesterday's low-rate DTE. So we have 3-D data of the sky and some distant soil, which is obviously useless for working with a rock a meter away. There's more data coming in, so we'll know soon whether we can use the IDD or not.

Meanwhile, the APXS guys show some of their data, and boy, are they happy. They've waited patiently through a long cruise phase and two weeks on Mars, and today they got their first real data at last. We've now checked out every instrument on the surface of Mars, another milestone for the project. And they're all raring to go. The MTES super-resolution image worked, too: they got Adirondack, dead center.

Just after this, the cloud starts to rain. Or drizzle, at least. The missing FHAZ[1] image didn't come down in the end, so no IDD tomorrow. Mark Adler breaks the bad news to Squyres, who earns his paycheck, instantly trying to bargain: are we sure we ended up where we thought? Maybe we could drive forward another 10cm, to ensure Adirondack will be in the IDD workspace? Adler turns him down, and with good reason. Squyres is concerned about one failure case, the one in which we get the stereo data and learn that the rock is too far away, so that we'll waste (as he sees it) another day driving. If we drive today, we effectively win that day back. But there are at least two failure cases associated with driving. We might be too close to Adirondack already, in which case the 10cm drive will take us way too close, and we'll waste at least one day backing off. Or we might drive and then fail to get tomorrow's HAZCAMs, in which case we would have been OK if only we'd stayed put -- and again, we'll have to waste a day fixing the problem. Neither choice is appealing. So: no driving today.

The mood in the meeting sours considerably. Nothing like having your hopes dashed. But the scientists are pros, and they're instantly suggesting options. PANCAM the wheel tracks. PANCAM the wheels themselves, to look for any soil adherence. NAVCAM panorama. APXS door calibration. MB on the CCTs[2]. No shortage of ideas in this crowd.

Missing the image we needed is a bummer, but I'm too happy to get really down about it. I have a little time before the SOWG, and I take part of it to gloat over the new data. The PANCAM got a beautiful shot of Adirondack, and that was before the drive -- the one we take from our final position will be something to see. And that Sashimi image is so weird, with the fascinating rectangular depression in one side. (There I go again, getting excited about rocks. I can't help it.)

The SOWG goes well again, though I have very little to do, since we won't drive or use the IDD tomorrow. But they ask for shadowing again, and this time I have it ready almost before they can ask. It helps that Jeff Norris gave me a heads-up that they were going to ask for it, but it also helps that I spent yesterday obsessing over my failure to do it fast the first time, and practicing. Sometimes that obsessing-over-failure thing works for me.

Since I have no real work today, Brian and I talk about what we can do today to help future days work better. So I spend some more time on my automated flight rule checker, which by now has already taken more time than it will ever save me[3], but what the heck. It will save time for others. And besides, it can be worth spending thirty minutes of non-critical time now to save fifteen minutes of critical time later.

Long John Silver's has announced that if Steve Squyres and Ray Arvidson will certify by February 29 that there was once an ocean on Mars, the restaurant chain will give free shrimp to everyone in America. Oookaaaayyy ....

Just before my day ends, I find myself giving Rick Welch a pep talk, which starts off as kind of a joke but I end up meaning it. "This is the greatest thing in the world we're doing right here!" I exclaim. "And the whole world is watching us do it! We're driving a rover on Mars! I'm getting up at four-thirty in the morning and I'm happy about it!" Right away, he's laughing (and I never make Rick laugh), and pretty soon the whole room is listening and laughing as I rant. HAZCAM, schmazcam. It's a great day on Mars.


[1] An abbreviation for "Front HAZCAM," as you might have guessed.

[2] Compositional Calibration Target, mounted on the rover itself, just above the arm. This would help calibrate the MB (Mossbauer spectrometer), one of the instruments on the IDD.

[3] So wrong! I've continued to maintain this software all the way through the mission, and it's been a huge, huge time-saver for the whole team, even taking into account the many hours I've spent developing it. I can't count the number of times it's saved us from making a dumb mistake that would have blown a sol or even endangered a rover. And, of course, automating as much as possible of our checklist leaves us more brain cycles to spend on the creative parts of the job.


Spirit Sol 15

I arrive early but immediately get sucked into fixing a bug in someone else's software. This annoys the heck out of me and eats into the start of my day. Worst of all, dealing with it makes me late for the downlink assessment meeting. During the part of it I'm in, I'm too irritated and distracted to really focus on it anyway, so I'm a little relieved when Rick Welch pulls me out of it. "We're driving today," he says, "did you know that?"

We're driving today.

When every day costs four million dollars, you make the most of them. Eric's sequences are all going well, so they've decided to drive to Adirondack this afternoon, a day earlier than we'd thought. I start running down my checklist. Mobility/IDD has nothing new; next thing is to check in with ACS[1]. Steve Collins is a sharp guy I've almost known for a long time (don't ask me to explain that), and he's the ACS rep today. I check in with him. The HGA[2] is going to point at Earth through the PMA[3], so we might get some degradation in the post-drive DTE[4] pass. It's trivial to fix; we just have to tell the HGA to flip over to the other side. But they actually want to keep it like this, so that we can characterize the behavior of the HGA in this configuration. OK by me.

I am almost but not quite late for the SOWG meeting, arriving just in time for them to say, "Oh, there he is now." The SOWG is frantic, but I'm in the zone. Maybe I can do this job.

Mark Maimone has a few tweaks to Jeff's drive sequence, which he and I take care of during the SOWG, but I can't do much to it beyond that for now. I know Jeff wants to add some imaging to the drive, but I don't know what he wants, so I decide not to mess with the sequence until he arrives. Instead, I start reviewing Eric's IDD sequence. Some of the pointing looks wrong -- the values differ from my own calculations only in the third or fourth decimal place, and that won't change where the arm is placed in practice, but there shouldn't be any difference at all. Anything unexplained is bad. I fret about it until Bob Bonitz arrives, and we manage to shrink the differences a little further, but we never do figure out what's wrong. We need to add some other stuff anyway, to get a picture of the flag on the RAT, so we move on, unsatisfied.

When Jeff Biesiadecki arrives, the team splits up: Bob and Brian work on the IDD stuff, and Jeff and I take the mobility stuff. I don't really understand what he wants to add, and this is my chance to learn about it so that I can get it right if I have to do it myself. The change to the mobility sequence is to use the NAVCAM to look to the right periodically as the rover drives, so that Mark Maimone can tune his visual odometry code. There are some other changes, but none of them really throws me.

The complicated part, as it turns out, is something else altogether. The rover can't move during the afternoon DTE session, because the antenna bounces around too much to maintain lock, so we have to finish driving by then. But we can't start early, because the RAT flag image has to happen after 11AM in order for the light to be right. We can't start early, we can't finish late, and we can't cut anything out of the middle.

Or can we? We added a five- or ten-minute sequence requested by Mike Malin, one that will get an important PANCAM image of the disturbed soil near the lander. This will help tell us what the soil is made of and why it acts like it does, which is currently quite a mystery. So there's scientific merit in the sequence. We can't take the soil picture before driving because the rover's body is in the way, and after the drive we'll be too far away to get as good a picture as we need. We have to take it right in the middle. If we do it at all. But the drive is so tight already, and buying back five or ten minutes might make all the difference, allowing us to complete the drive and start science on Adirondack a day earlier. And I did warn them at the SOWG meeting that this image would be best-effort only.

Jeff and I debate this for a while and eventually decide to leave the imaging in. It's a risk, but it's worth it. Even if we take the imaging out, there's a good chance the drive won't complete anyway, in which case we get no science and we don't nail the drive. With the imaging in, at least we'll have something. We'll let the drive finish if it can, and if it can't, the master sequence for the day will have to simply kill off the driving sequence before the DTE pass.

So far there's nothing unusual about this arrangement; we must have done it dozens of times in testing. The catch has to do with the rover's Inertial Measurement Unit, which tracks the rover's attitude as it moves. The IMU draws power and generates heat, and today we're already low on power and too warm. So we don't want to leave the IMU on after the drive if we don't have to. But if the drive sequence is interrupted by the master sequence, the IMU won't get turned off, which would be bad for the rover.

We end up splitting the sequence into two parts, the second of which handles the cleanup.[5] Even if the driving sequence is terminated early, the master sequence will call the cleanup code, which will shut down the IMU. We also arrange to have the IMU shut down at the end of the drive sequence itself, so that if we finish earlier than expected, we'll have the IMU off for that much longer. Jeff and I are worried about the last-minute changes we had to make to rearrange everything, but we go over it and over it and can find nothing wrong. In a way, that bothers me -- surely we screwed something up. "What have we forgotten?" I ask, and we look again. But we don't find anything.

At this point I've been working, constantly stressed, for nearly three hours longer than my shift. I don't want to leave, but I know I need to. I've never been so exhilarausted. Jeff and I wish each other luck, and I make my way home. I go to sleep with my fingers crossed, at least metaphorically. While I sleep, a hundred million miles away, a robotic scientist is carrying out my commands, slowly turning and crawling across the surface of another world.

Or maybe not.


[1] Attitude Control Subsystem.

[2] High-Gain Antenna. It's the one that looks like a lollipop.

[3] PANCAM Mast Assembly. It's the rover's "neck and head" -- the camera mast that sticks up and has the PANCAMs, NAVCAMs, and MTES on top.

[4] Direct-To-Earth -- that is, a data pass where we send data directly to listening radio antennae on Earth, not indirectly through an orbiter.

[5] This immediately became standard practice, something we do to this day. And that's one of the great things about working on MER surface operations. You're faced with a tough problem, you invent a solution on the fly, and that solution becomes the standard practice for solving those problems (though often, as in this case, it's incrementally refined later). It makes me feel like I'm on the bridge of the Enterprise, like I'm Kirk inventing new battle tactics as the Klingons are attacking and then the tactic gets named after me and taught at the Academy.

Okay, so maybe it's not quite that dramatic. But it's awfully stimulating, all the same.


Spirit Sol 14

To my genuine astonishment, everything went great yesterday. I never doubted Eric's carefully planned sequences, but we had to make enough changes to them at the last minute that I was sure we'd screw something up. We didn't.

None of the reports I need is quite ready yet, though, so I get a chance to go to the downlink assessment meeting for the first time in days. The scientists have a great big anaglyph of the lander-look HAZCAM hanging on the wall, and a stunningly detailed PANCAM image of Pebble Flats, each pixel representing half a millimeter. (The only finer-resolution pictures of Mars have just come down from the MI as I arrive, and PANCAM PUL Jim Bell teases the MI guys about this: "Until a couple of minutes ago, those PANCAM pictures were the best-resolution pictures ever taken of Mars -- damn you, Ken!") I don't faint, quite, but Ray Arvidson was still right about this beautiful instrument. The MI image is beautiful, too, showing every individual dust grain in an area the size of a golf ball.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Our first MI of the surface, from the surface.

The RAT team puts up a front HAZCAM image showing a healthy RAT; their diagnostics also went well, though the revolve current was a little high because of the Martian temperature differences. Now we just need to take them to a rock they can drill.

The long-term plan is to take them to one, soon. Yesterday we did the MEX[1] overflight (the first international coordinated observation on Mars -- Spirit looked up and MEX looked down as they flew overhead, both of them taking thermal images of the atmosphere), the IDD deploy, and the MI on the soil. The plan for tomorrow is an MB and APXS on the soil. On sol 16, we'll stow the IDD and drive (I'll drive!) to a nearby rock -- probably Adirondack, although Sashimi and an unnamed white rock (some call it "White Boat") are also contenders. After the drive, we'll IDD the rock for a couple of sols, then maybe RAT it -- or drive again. By sol 21, we'll IDD the soil wherever we are, then stand down for a few sols while Opportunity lands.

People are starting to hope: the main path through the above tree of possibilities requires everything to go brilliantly, but as the LTP rep says, "there's no reason to think it won't continue to go that way."

There's a brief discussion of the best rock to drive to. Adirondack is easy to reach and is RATable. Sashimi is also close, but its shape might make it harder to RAT -- Adirondack has a nice, broad, flat surface, unlike its slightly closer neighbor. MTES doesn't care; both rocks are large enough for them. The general feeling, though, is that we need high-res PANCAMs of both rocks to decide. (Squyres wants Adirondack, though. We'll end up there, mark my words.)

Jeff Biesiadecki is making us look good. He's been taking advantage of our slack time as rover drivers to generate a candidate drive sequence to Adirondack. So as a "special bonus," as Arvidson says, I show them the animation, warning them that we cut the drive a little short so that we won't overdrive. This may mean it'll take two sols to reach the rock, not just one.

Leaving the downlink assessment meeting, I realize I haven't seen the sun for a few days. I don't know how many. (I look at my watch later, see it's 1:30, and have to think carefully to figure out whether that's AM or PM.) It's like Caves of Steel in here.

I go see whether Mobility/IDD has their report ready yet. It's a good thing there's no real work again today (Eric is once more the star of the show), because Ashitey is training a couple of new people and everything takes ten times as long as it normally does. I don't want new people, anyway. I want Ashitey and Eddie [Tunstel], and that's it. If that's too much work for them, too bad. Ah, well, the new guys will be fine.

Since I'm really on shift now, I have to attend the SOWG whether I like it or not. Turns out it's more interesting when there's the constant adrenaline fear that they'll suddenly ask you something tough, so I'm more alert than usual. Their plan is characteristically ambitious: MTES and PANCAM on Sashimi and Adirondack, a super-resolution MTES on Adirondack, another MTES octant, a PANCAM of White Boat, and a HAZCAM of the rover tracks. This will all be squeezed in around Eric's canned IDD checkout stuff, so it's a monster day once again.

To help determine the best time to take the HAZCAMs of the rover tracks, Arvidson (who's running this meeting) asks me for shadowing on the left rear wheel. I know HyperDrive can do this, though I've never done it, but I fumble through to the answer. I'm just about ready to show it to them when I get greedy, try something I shouldn't try, and run into a HyperDrive bug. Argh. I start over, play conservatively this time, and get them the answer. I should be doing better than this.

The evening is relatively simple, since Eric has already set everything up. Which is a little anticlimactic, but that's OK. I'm contributing some, here and there, and having everything pretty much canned for the first few days eases me into the job. Even though I know I won't find anything wrong, I review Eric's sequences obsessively, over and over, looking for anything out of place. If we lose a sol, I won't get the first drive. As expected, I don't find anything wrong. I cross my fingers and go home, and for once I'm more or less on time.


[1] Mars Express, the European Space Agency orbiter that carried Beagle 2 to Mars and has been doing some fascinating science of its own ever since.


Spirit Sol 13

[This might be confusing: egress happened on sol 12, not sol 13, but since my shifts crossed the sol-midnight boundary, I kept my notes based on the sol we were planning -- in this case, sol 13. It all starts to sync up in a less confusing way when we get into the routine of planning, post-egress.]

I don't get much sleep, but tonight is egress, so I don't care. I get there at 11:30, a little later than I really wanted to, but in time.

Just as I arrive, I meet Kurt Schwehr, who asks if RSVP can produce animations. Boy, do I have great timing. It turns out that Kurt intends to record RSVP simulating the pre-egress turn, so that they can show it at the press conference. At the moment, he doesn't need our new feature where we write our animation to a file -- he's under time pressure and just wants to use the existing animation features, and just needs a little help figuring them out -- but he's interested in the new stuff and wants to hear more about it. Score!

I go to the SMSA, hide in the back, and listen in as the flight director, Chris Lewicki, polls the subsystems. Everyone is go for launch -- especially the mech guys, Kevin Burke and Chris Voorhees, who answer the flight director in unison: "Mech is GO FOR EGRESS!" They played "Rawhide" ("Rollin', rollin', rollin'") and told Spirit to take a walk. Then we waited.

For an hour and a half. So to kill the time, Ralph Roncoli and I start talking about the VP visit yesterday. I tell him about how I accidentally ended up being part of the presentation machinery, and how useless I was -- Jennifer was standing right next to me when she said to start the movie, and she was even pointing at the button I clicked to start it. All she would have had to do is (and I demonstrate) bend slightly to the right, and her index finger would have clicked the button and I would have been entirely superfluous. (Although, to my own credit, I did also fast-forward through part of it so that the movie wouldn't drag too much, and that requires two fingers.)

Squyres is standing next to me, listening to me tell this story, and he's laughing, but he points out that when your audience is the Vice President, even not having to worry about pressing one button is a comfort. That's a good point.

There's still an hour before anything will happen, so I walk back to my office to write documentation. I'm trying to learn a lesson from landing night: if you're not there, they can't throw you out. Even though they're not being as fascist now, I don't want to miss this. I return a couple of minutes before egress confirmation is due.

Nothing. It was supposed to take an hour and a half. It's now been an hour and a half, and ... nothing.

Lewicki reminds us that even getting carrier from the spacecraft is a good thing. If we screwed up the egress, a carrier will tell us that Spirit is alive, that we have a chance to fix whatever's wrong.

Minutes tick by. Spirit is, I'm telling you, a drama queen.

"Carrier in lock," comes the report, and the place erupts. But we're shushed almost immediately. Spirit is alive, that's good, but we don't know where she is yet. She might be upside down for all we know.

More agonizing seconds. We get a report that the tilt high-water-mark measurement is about what we expected -- a little high, maybe, but in range. Looks like Spirit went down an incline of just about the right angle. More cheering and clapping. Then we get the odometer readings: we've moved about 2.5 meters, just as expected. So everyone knows the answer already, but when Justin puts up the picture, it's a madhouse. Pandemonium.

Spirit is looking back at the lander. And at her own tracks in the dirt. She's on Mars.

The delay, it turns out later, is because Spirit got a small bump coming off the lander and lost track of exactly where she was. She had to search for the sun to establish her location well enough to phone home. Or that's her story. My explanation: she's a drama queen. And that's all right. As long as she keeps working this well, she can be a drama queen, for all I care. Go, baby.

Much partying ensues, with champagne, even. Pete Theisinger trades his usual dress shirt for a "My other vehicle is on Mars" T-shirt. I get my picture taken with Sofi Collis, the little girl who named the rovers, and realize that I'm much more excited about this than about getting my picture taken with the Vice President. I'm relieved to realize that. I'm still me.

There's a press conference at 2AM (delayed to 3AM, as it happens), so we all troop over there. I'm with Nagin and Jeff. We actually get seats. The press conference is a weird affair: a dozen exhausted journalists and a hundred triumphant geeks.

It's weird for another reason, too. I occasionally find these post-success press conferences embarrassing, and I realize that it's because they resemble the Oscars -- it seems like everyone is just thanking everyone else, sometimes to the point of tedium. But there's a difference between this and the Oscars, I think, a significant one. My sense of the Oscars is that most of the winners (if you can call them that) are heaping praise on others as a way of heaping praise on themselves, an unctuous, insincere, false humility. Whether that's true of them or not, I know the people here, and there's nothing insincere about them. When they thank others, it's a genuine recognition of their own limits, genuine admiration and gratitude.

During the press conference, they play the RSVP animation Kurt recorded, and I realize that Ashitey gave him the data -- stitched together by those scripts I wrote on sols 1 and 2, when I totally thought I was wasting my time. Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. This is great, our software getting an international audience. It's better than being famous.

My favorite line from the press conference is Joel Krajewski's: "There is life on Mars," he says, "and we put it there."

The press conference ends a little before 4AM. I was supposed to be on shift about 3:35. My first real day of work, and I'm already fifteen minutes late. Well, the only one there before me is Frank, and he's already looking at the lander image in stereo mode. I put on the goggles to see for myself. Damn, that's a beautiful thing to see.

Squyres walks by. Mindful that this is the culmination of sixteen years of work for him, I grab him and tell him he needs to see something. He puts on the stereo goggles, leans in, and just sits there, staring back at the lander. As he takes off the goggles he's emotional. "You know," he says to nobody in particular, almost to himself, "we are gonna take spectacular vistas and beautiful panoramas. But we are never gonna take a picture that means more to me than that one right there." He walks back out into the hallway.

Science is already on the move. The downlink assessment meeting has a lot to talk about, going over the images Spirit has sent back from her new location. "The PANCAM is such a beautiful instrument," Arvidson says, "I think if we get full-res uncompressed images we'll faint."

The region they want to get those images of has been christened "Pebble Flats." They've marked a couple of targets for us, places where we can safely exercise the microscopic imager, MB, and APXS for the first time while getting some decent science out of it. It turns out to be harder to select such targets than you might think: for this checkout, we need an area that's all soil and no rock, and there are so many pebbles here that it's hard to find a good spot. Two of the candidate targets are in compressed regions of the image, so we can't even be sure that they're really clean. But we've got one good safe candidate, and Eric Baumgartner, who's doing all the real work for the first couple of days, is down in the testbed verifying his sequences will be OK with it.

While in the meeting, I realize something. I didn't know exactly what to tell the LA Times reporter when he asked how smart the rover was, but I do now. This rover is unimaginably smart. It's as smart as the hundred or so scientists in this room, combined, plus the engineers and managers who make it work every day. It's literally true, a thought that chills me a little. We are this rover's brain cells. We are its personality. We are this rover.

Another rock is named: a broad pyramid has been dubbed Adirondack. It's the likely destination for our first drive. Only about 3.5 meters away and with a nice flat face, it should be a great chance for us to exercise the RAT[1]. There's also a region named for the desert planet that's the central setting of Frank Herbert's book "Dune": Arrakis. They also announce that they're going to give a copy of the Panorama to Sofi, signed by any project member who wants to sign it. I sign it.

They're going to do some other science while we sit here checking out the arm for a few days. Some atmospheric science is in the queue; they'll retake some PANCAM and MTES images that had low signal-to-noise ratios because they were taken at low temperatures; they'll analyze some of the aeolian drifts to see what features are real and what are photometric. But the critical stuff is the IDD. Eric's stuff.

Eric is stressed, incredibly stressed. The success we've had so far has had one unintended consequence: it's making everyone very careful. Nobody wants to be the first to screw up. So people are checking, rechecking, re-rechecking, even more than we have been, and Eric is no exception. But he's been working on the outlines of his sequences for weeks, waiting only for the targeting information, and now that he has that he completes the rest, checking his work a hundred different ways, and leaves content. He's sure it will work.

And it would have, except for one thing. After he leaves, we get updated data from Mobility/IDD, showing that we're not oriented exactly the way we thought we were. The difference is slight, very slight, but it's enough to screw up Eric's careful work. Bob Bonitz ends up reconfiguring the IDD to get the job done, and he and Jeff Biesiadecki make it with literally five minutes to spare. But they make it.

But the worst of that wasn't known until after Frank and I had left. Frank and I hang around for about an hour after our shift is over, mostly just to be there, and partly to ensure that nobody deletes the commands we'd added. We'd checked out Eric's commands and discovered that he hadn't disabled the flaky APXS contact switches, which is something we need to do during most IDD operations. We're pretty sure they're disabled already, but we want to be certain, so we check out the telemetry. As expected, the telemetry shows that both switches are disabled already, so we don't need to send commands to disable them. Then we realize that that means that we can disable them without hurting anything. There are two switches, so Frank adds the command to disable one and I add the command to disable the other. Holy smoke, I'm a rover driver now.

I go home and go to sleep, tired but happy, with ten whole hours before I need to wake up again.

Less than 40 minutes later, my cell phone rings. At first I think it's the alarm, that it's time to get up, but the display on the front is showing that I missed a call. I don't recognize the number. Somehow I pull myself together enough to return the call, and it turns out it's Matt Keuneke. They're having some kind of problem with RoSE, my software, but I can't understand his explanation. I'm also not very nice to him, because my brain isn't working. At this point I don't even really know who he is, or where I am; I'm just not functioning at all. My mouth tries to suggest an approach to solving the problem, and while I'm doing this the problem magically fixes itself on their end. Later I consider the possibility that they lied to me to get me off the phone, but I talk to them about it and no, that really did happen. We don't understand the behavior, but it's working now.

Uh-oh. Maybe RoSE is a drama queen, too.

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. Six wheels on soil! Spirit looks back at her lander.

Me with Sofi Collis, who named Spirit and Opportunity.

Except that he's wearing a T-shirt, that guy looks just like Pete Theisinger!

After 16 years of effort, Steve Squyres is looking through the eyes of a rover whose wheels are on Mars.


[1] Rock Abrasion Tool, our drill.


Spirit Sol 12

Susan Kurtik sends the results of Fark's "What's NASA Hiding on Mars?" contest, in which people submit Photoshopped images showing what might have been lurking in the blacked-out area of our first PANCAM image. The truth, as usual, was boring (a data dropout left us with only partial data in the lower left corner, and it looked better just to crop it out), but the suggestions are funny: the Sci-Fi channel logo, an index finger over the lens (Frank's favorite), Joel/Mike and the bots from MST3K (my favorite, and it prompts an in-joke from fellow MST3K fan Craig Leff: "Cambot, give me Rover #9!").

Susan also forwards Byron Yetter's report of our progress toward egress, which report reads in part as follows:

> The "Spirit" Rover Engineering team also announced this morning that
> the Rover's odometer now reads 25 centimeters as a result of last
> night's 45° turn-in-place to the right. The Rover Engineering team
> quickly denied rumors that this 25 centimeter mileage, now showing
> on the "Spirit's" odometer, some how voids the manufacturer's
> warranty. They did admit however, that after they successfully drive
> the Rover off the Lander, the Rover will lose some significant
> re-sale value.

And Mark Adler sent out a recording of our phone call with the President. We can't release it to the public, but I archive a copy for my personal use. It's pretty much exactly as I remember it.

Meanwhile, JPL is gearing up for a visit from the Vice President today. He'll visit the SMSA and speak on the Mall, and they've invited the whole MER team to stand behind him (literally) while he gives a speech. The President will also be speaking, at NASA HQ, via video linkup. So Frank and I are dressed up a little, as are some other people who don't normally dress up. I used to scoff at such visits (I did so when Al Gore came here, and when Hillary Clinton spoke at my UofI graduation), on the grounds that they're essentially using us as human props while they do their political thing. I've decided to try using these visits as opportunities to see the people for myself, to evaluate them. Listening in on the President's phone call the other day (did I really do that?) was illuminating. You never know, maybe this will be, too.

The deal is that you can show up in the SMSA after the President's speech, at 1PM, and seating is first-come, first-served. I plan to sidle in about thirty seconds before 1PM, at which point I'm sure the place will already be packed. (Nobody, I'm sure, will be discouraged by the presence of the Secret Service, which is already wanding everyone who walks onto the floor.) A little after noon, while I'm waiting in the Sequencing MSA for the President's speech to start, Richard Kornfeld runs in breathlessly and asks if there's any way to play QuickTime movies under Linux.

"No," I tell him. (Which is strictly false: you can do it, but we'd have to download and install more software than we have time for right now. So "no" is the right answer.) "You want to use my Mac instead?"

So I grab my laptop and set up in the SMSA, where, I learn, they have created a QuickTime movie file of the egress testing. They're going to show this to the VP as part of their presentation. I download the movie to my Mac and end up sitting in the front of the room, about a meter from where the Vice President will sit. Jennifer Trosper is going to say "... the egress movie," and that's my cue to hit "Play" on the QuickTime movie player. Which is silly, really -- they need an entire human to press a single button? I certainly don't mind helping out, but at times like this I find it hard to justify my existence. But OK. I go back to my office (walking a lot more briskly than I need to, considering we still have about 2 hours to prepare; I could have walked there backwards, on my hands, and still have had time to stop for a nap) and grab some cables I'll need -- and a book to pass the time. Which I don't read.

The President's speech plays on the TV monitors in the SMSA. He's going to increase NASA's funding slightly over the next five years (at which point he'll be out of office either way), replace the Shuttle with a new vehicle, go to the Moon and Mars with a mix of robotic and human explorers. We all like those goals.

Shortly after the President's speech, the room fills up with people anticipating the VP's visit. The crowd is ebullient. We don't normally get this kind of attention from the press or from the White House, so this is sort of a treat for us, and even if it weren't, everyone would want to be in the same room as the VP.

Poor Henry Stone has bad news. "For security reasons, we have to get the room down to 30 people," he says. The Secret Service insists on this so that they can get the VP out of the room in case of an "incident," but there are already twice that many people in the room, maybe more than that. Some people give up right away, but not nearly enough. We're still over by at least 20 people. Henry doesn't want to be the bad guy, but we're going to make him.

They try to spread the pain around among different teams -- kick out some science people, some ACS people, and so on. Bad feelings are developing. "I'm just the messenger," Henry says apologetically. Too bad, Henry: "Can we shoot you anyway?" someone asks. Some woman with a clipboard -- I think she's a JPLer, not a White House person -- is backing Henry up. "If we don't get it down to 30 people, this won't happen," she says, "and if you think Pete Theisinger is going to be upset about that, you're right." A few more people give up graciously, but they'll still need to kick people out.

I'm exempt, because they need me to help run the presentation. I have the all-important, highly technical job of pressing the single button on my Mac, remember? When Jennifer points at me and says the magic words, I need to be there to push the button? So obviously I can't go. It occurs to me that I had my turn already, in a way, when I got to be there for the President's phone call last week, so I start looking around for someone who seems really upset about leaving. I'm thinking I can swap with them -- I'll leave, and they can stay and press the button. (Assuming they can handle the extensive training this demands, of course.) But before I can act on this, they've gotten it down to the limit.

Poor Henry. It's not his fault, not in the least, but there will be some bad blood over this. He feels it. "I'm sorry about this, guys," he says to those of us who remain, and someone rubs it in, telling him that we're not the ones he needs to apologize to. "You guys are going to be my Secret Service now, right?" he asks. "You're going to protect me from everyone else?" He's still not getting a lot of warm fuzzies from the crowd.

Speaking of the Secret Service ... since we still have almost half an hour before anything will happen, I go hang out with my fellow rover drivers at the back of the room. (I can't leave the room, I'm told, because they won't let me back in, and then who will press the button?) We end up talking with a really friendly Secret Service guy, who tells us a lot of interesting stuff about his job. (There are already several agents in the room, and they look just like you picture them: short-haired bulky men in dark suits, earpieces in one ear, retractable microphones up the left sleeve.) Since the Secret Service is part of the Treasury Department, they spend some of their time doing Treasury-related law enforcement -- busting counterfeiters, for instance. The best counterfeit bills come from Colombia, like the best drugs, he says. The counterfeits are so good that you can't tell them from the real thing; they have to send them to a special team of geeks in D.C.

"If they're that close to the real thing, maybe we should stop printing our own money and just outsource the job to Colombia," I tell him. He laughs.

At one point during the conversation, he abruptly stops talking and listens to his earphone. They must have changed something in the Matrix.

He also tells us that Secret Service agents rotate among jobs, spending about five years doing law enforcement work, then protection (of current and former Presidents and Vice Presidents and their families, and so on), then back to law enforcement. It's tough, especially when doing protection, because you're always on the road. Imagine doing that when you have a family. So a lot of Secret Service agents transition to jobs in the FBI or DEA. And vice versa -- a lot of FBI and DEA agents go into the Secret Service. He tells us a little about the differences between the agencies, and I grin and say, "But you guys are the best, right?" I won't repeat his answer here, but it's safe to say he doesn't disagree.

It's getting close to time for the VP to arrive, so I head back to my station at the front of the room. I make a deal with Daniel Limonadi, who's punching the buttons to display different monitors on the projection screens (and was therefore also granted an exemption from the mass ejection): I brought my digital camera, so I'll get a picture of him with the VP in the background if he gets one of me. Deal.

A few minutes later, the media arrive through one door, and shortly after that Cheney enters through another. While he's seating himself, I turn my back to him and do the thing where you hold the camera out at arm's length and take a picture of yourself, with him in the background. This gives me the funniest picture I've ever taken: one cheek and eyeball on the left of the frame, with the VP behind me talking to Dr. Elachi, obviously utterly unaware of my presence. I have already mentally captioned this image. "Me with the Vice President. Not pictured: me." (Yes, it's the same joke I used about my supposed picture with the president. I think it's twice as funny now.)

Me with the Vice President. Not pictured (or, anyway, barely pictured): me.

Cheney watches Jennifer's presentation attentively as Secret Service agents lurk in the background.

So now the Vice President of the United States is sitting about a meter away from me. He's in the Flight Director's seat, which is where we actually send the commands from. (Elachi tells him this, and jokingly admonishes, "Try not to push anything.") I'm sitting in the Activity Lead station, the next row over. I could reach out and touch the Vice President, if I wanted to get instantly killed by the Secret Service and also lose my job. I consider doing it anyway.

Jennifer Harris Trosper tells the VP about the mission, why we're doing it and where we are. As is her wont, she spreads the love, giving due props to project members such as Joel Krajewski, who's making sure we get Spirit safely off her lander. At the appropriate moment, right on cue from Jennifer, I press the button on my Mac to play the video. But for some reason there's a brief delay in switching the projectors to show my Mac's display, so the first few seconds of the video are about to be missed. We can get to Mars, but we can't get this right? Screw that. I quickly grab the slider to drag the animation back to the starting position and it restarts just as the display switches over. So we got there in the clumsiest way possible, but we ended up looking good. Scott saves the day.

Then Squyres presents the science view. Squyres's presentation is fantastic; he's like an excited Carl Sagan, if you can imagine such a thing. And at least some of it, like calling the rover a "Swiss Army knife of scientific instruments," seems to get through. But Cheney is flat, very flat, the whole time. If you've seen him on TV looking serious and attentive and poker-faced, it was exactly like that, only closer and without commercials.

Krajewski presented Cheney with a Mars-time watch and Justin Maki gave him a "Presidential Plaque" with an image of the signature plate on the rover -- an image sent back from Mars. The top signature on the plate is George W. Bush's, and the one below it is, of course, Dick Cheney's. That's the only time you see a crack in Cheney, the only time you seem to see a person in there, and I think it's a person who is genuinely impressed and honored to realize that a part of him made it to another planet a hundred million miles away, there to stay forever. That's a person I'd like. But it's gone faster than I can blink, and maybe it was never there.

We file out to the JPL Mall (sort of our "Main Street"), after the VP is whisked out of the room. There are a lot of nervous jokes about rooftop snipers, but I can't spot any. Which might just mean that they're doing their job. Anyway, we form two rows, and the VP walks between us down to the lectern, and we fill in behind him, as directed, so that when he speaks the TV cameras will show him surrounded by happy human props. From where I'm standing I can't even see the back of his head, except in brief glimpses. (Brian and Frank are pretty much right behind him, though.[1]) He gives some speech I don't listen to (making the same joke Elachi made about not touching anything in the control room, which gets quoted on the news), and Elachi gives him a rover model and a "Spirit and Opportunity" T-shirt, and he shakes hands with the crowd and leaves. So I watched the back of the Vice President's head as he gave a speech I wasn't interested in. There's fifteen minutes of my life I'll never have back.

From the point of view of getting a personal insight into the Vice President of the sort I got into the President, it's a bust. Cheney isn't really there anyway, he's doing a gig, and after us he's on to the next gig at Joe's Widget Factory in Pismo Beach or whatever. Or that's what I think. The guy's tight as a clam, and I have no idea whether it's because he's following Polonius's advice or Lincoln's.

Anyway, for those of you keeping track at home, the score stands thus. Me: 1. White House: 1. Considering their vastly greater resources, I think I'm doing okay.

I go home to sleep, since I need to be back tonight at about 11:30 for the egress festivities, and it's already about 4. My first shift starts just after egress, though, and I'm so wired I end up getting only three hours of sleep.

I wake up with a nasty thought: I know who I am. I'm sure you've figured it out by now. I'm from the South, I always try naively to do the right thing, I fall ass-backwards into major events and meetings with famous and powerful people, and here I am telling the story of my life to anyone who will listen.

Mah name's Gump, Forrest Gump.


[1] This is because they blew off the Secret Service's directions. Nobody was supposed to move until Cheney was in place, but instead, as soon as the VP passed him on the way down to the lectern, Brian fell into step right behind him, and Frank followed Brian's lead, so the two of them got in before anyone else. Your quaint "rules" do not apply to Mars rover drivers.