2009-01-03

Hello, World!

Five years ago today, two thousand pounds of metal sent from Earth traced a curving line of fire through a butterscotch sky. Six minutes later, after throwing away its protective shell and sprouting airbags and a parachute, the metal slammed into a rock-strewn landscape, bounced several stories in the air, and gradually rolled to a stop. The airbags deflated, and their carefully sheltered cargo, a rough pyramid, unfolded like an enormous flower, greeting a sun that was both familiar and alien -- the same sun it had once known, but now smaller, more distant.

The blooming flower revealed a seed it had carried for seven months, a robotic geologist that a little Earthling girl had named Spirit. Wasting little time, the seed itself stood up, unfolded, and began to explore her new home.

The invasion of Mars had begun.

For three weeks, Spirit was the only thing moving purposefully on the surface of that long-dead world. She would soon be joined by her twin sister, Opportunity, who would land on the far side of their shared planet -- the two would never meet -- and together they would work to uncover the secrets of that fabled place.

It was not the land we had once dreamed of. No ancient cities, no crystal spires, no wine-filled canals greeted our robotic ambassadors. But by then, we knew it wouldn't be that. In a way, it was something better. It was a real place: a world whose past we could read, a world we could know, if we were brave enough, careful enough, disciplined enough.

I was there from the beginning. Listen, and I'll tell you how it happened.


Of all the hazards we faced in our exploration of Mars, one of the most dangerous was one that was almost laughably simple: sleep. Or, rather, the lack thereof -- fatigue. Mars was an unforgiving place; we had designed the rovers to be robust, but it was still possible for a single mistake by a single team member to kill them. And fatigue leads to mistakes.

That problem's worrisome enough if you live on Earth time. We didn't. To use our solar-powered rovers most efficiently -- and efficiency was everything then -- we set our work day by the sun's course through the Martian sky, never mind when it was up in the Earth sky. And because the Martian day isn't quite the same length as the Earth day -- a difference of about 40 minutes -- our work schedules, though always the same when told by a Martian clock, marched inexorably around the face of an Earth clock.

Say you come into work at 8:00 AM Monday. Tuesday, you come in at 8:40; Wednesday, 9:20; Thursday, 10:00; and so on. Pretty soon, you're starting your day at midnight, at 2 AM, at 4 AM. It's been called "Martian jet lag" -- it's tough on bodies, on brains, on relationships.

To help the team combat this dangerous enemy, JPL hosted a fatigue workshop. They told us warning signs to watch for (irritability, slap-happiness, and so on), and counseled us to keep an eye out for one another, to see each other through it. They set up break rooms where we could take naps if we just couldn't keep our eyes open. They made food available at odd hours, to soothe our puzzled stomachs. They installed blackout shades to keep the sun from resetting our internal clocks. They told us ways to mitigate fatigue's effects -- keeping to the Martian schedule even on our days off, modulating our caffeine intake.

Personally, I loved Mars time. Loved it. I couldn't get enough of it. It emphasized the uniqueness of what we were doing -- nobody else in the world lived on such a schedule. Plus, I got 40 extra minutes of sleep every night -- what's not to love? But then, I'm a night person, and night people do better on Mars time. All the damned morning people on the project were miserable on Mars time -- as miserable as I had been at their stupid 7:30 AM meetings during MER development -- and that was a source of wicked pleasure for me. (Petty? Maybe. But I lived on their schedule for years; they lived on mine for just a few months before they caved. You can't blame me for enjoying a little revenge.)

But there was one effect of living on Mars time that being a night person couldn't mitigate. My wife lived on Earth time; I went long periods without seeing her. So I took a tip from our fatigue workshop and, every day, wrote down what had happened that day, as a way of keeping in touch. I'd work a full Martian day, go home and write it all down, and leave the notes on the coffee table before I went to sleep.

These are those notes. The diary of a Mars rover driver, I suppose you could say. I've decided to make them public now, as a thank-you to everyone who's followed the mission for so long, everyone who's dreamed of being part of it. This is what it was like for one person who was, and still is, part of that mission. This is what it was like to be one person living a small part of a grand, historic adventure.

I haven't edited them much. They're occasionally chaotic and wrong. That was part of the adventure; it's what happens when you're drinking from half a dozen firehoses at once. So I've left 'em like that.

I'll try to post them more or less in real time -- that is, I'll post each sol's (Martian day's) notes just about when I was starting my work day, five years earlier. We started planning each sol in the late afternoon of the previous sol, when Spirit was winding down for bedtime. (Note that I was strictly on Spirit for the first part of the mission, and the rovers were on opposite schedules -- Spirit slept while Opportunity worked, and vice versa.) I don't have a complete five years' worth of notes; about three years in, I simply became overwhelmed by other things and stopped writing. But I'll post the first hundred sols or so, at least, and we'll see what I do after that.

(Oh, and need I say that this is not a JPL-sponsored activity? I did all of the writing on my own time, and with my own equipment, and you'll notice I'm not hosting it at a JPL site. For better and worse, this is mine, not theirs.)

Meanwhile, enough introduction! It's time to come along for the ride. My notes from sol 1 will be posted about 18:30 Pacific time tonight (Jan 3), with further updates coming roughly a day apart after that. Enjoy 'em!

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds great. I look forward to hearing of your adventures on the next planet out.

Jet said...

This is fantastic! I'm looking forward to following your 'travels'.

dynamicproxy said...

Amazing !

Thank you very much for sharing one of mankind's history-making adventures with your fellow-humans !

Rob Carr said...

This is a wonderful treat you've made available for us! Thank you so much.

fogtiger said...

I have my name (along with several thousand others from the Planetery Society) on a CD on both rovers. At the time I was making IC's that were going to Jupiter on the Gallileo probe. In the Navy I once served as a radio backup for one of the SkyLab missions (still have my mission and NASA worm patches). I've read with interest just about everything NASA publishs on the rover discoveries as they come in but will be looking forward to reading these more personal accounts. I would have been an astronaut but for my height and lack of a Phd. Still have my rejection letter as a momento.

klon-immor[t]al said...

This is this year's most amazing news for a beginning of a new year!

About ten, maybe twelve years ago, when still in the school, I trid to write a fictional account about the first manned mission to Mars. I even have collected those notes together back then, and created something of an imitation of a newspaper, with an interview with the crewmembers and a diary of the mission captain. The papers still lie somewhere in my desk :)

Mars has always been my fascination, and although I'm studying molecular biology, and not astronomy, it still is. I'll certainly love reading your notes.

A. J. Luxton said...

Having been "differently somnolent" all my life, I've often wished I could live on Mars time. What you describe as Martian jet lag is my natural brain state, only I don't have a cool reason to explain to my family, friends and employers. I follow enviously. Fantastic.

asteitel said...

This is great! I just stumbled upon this and I'm really looking forward to making my way through your travels.

Sparrow Rose said...

"nobody else in the world lived on such a schedule."

well...not exactly.

I have a rare circadian rhythm disorder called Hypernychthemeral Disorder or Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder that causes me to cycle around the clock just like that. My brain thinks I live on Mars.

Too bad I didn't have the education to come work on the Mars Rover project. Biologically, I would have been perfectly suited for it!

Anonymous said...

Just to echo Sparrow above - there's a whole bunch of us who have non-24 hour circadian rhythm disorders, who know exactly what it's like to live like that.
For most of us, the time is longer than 40 minutes - some people have 25 hour, 26 hour, even 27 hour days.
It wreaks havoc in life, especially when there's no understanding about it. It's great that at least some 'daywalkers' have had an experience like it, and even better that it was in such an exciting project.