2009-01-14

Spirit Sol 11

With my new schedule, I'm too late for the downlink assessment meeting again and I skip the SOWG altogether. There won't be too much science data today, anyway, since yesterday was very much an engineering sol.

There's another Mars story on Slashdot, so I post a comment about how we're using Java (and C++) to drive the rovers.

It's weird to run into John Wright[1] in the mornings -- John is normally such a morning person, and I'm normally such a night person, that it seems our schedules scarcely overlap at all. John tells me that he's got an animation of the rover's short drive-and-turn, and offers to show me. Twist my arm. He fires up iview, which is part of our software I've never even messed with, and shows me how to load in the images, adjust the colormaps, and create an animation on the fly. While John is showing me this, Jeff Biesiadecki[2] comes in with a big smile on his face. "We have a rover," he says. The umbilical has been cut, and the drive worked. We knew that already, from the animation, but Jeff's so happy that we don't have the heart to say so directly. Instead, John shows him the animation. Cooool.

At 9:30 there's a mobility assessment meeting. The terrain looks good. Let's drive, already!

One of the project's running jokes crops up at this meeting. It's common for people to hook up their laptops to one of the big projection screens, so we can all follow along as they show us their presentation or data graphs or whatever. When they're done, they close the application they were displaying with, and their desktop background image shows instead. Often, this is a picture of a beach or forest or something, and everyone will make a joke about how that's an amazing picture of Mars. It was funny for a while.[3]

As the meeting breaks up, there are some rueful jokes about what will happen if we have a problem driving after all this careful preparation. "They'll blame it on the flight software," groans the flight software lead. Matt Wallace kids about what the scientists will be saying during our multi-week drive to the 250m-distant crater they want to visit: "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

Mark Maimone, one of the presenters at the meeting, has some cool software. He wrote the rover's autonomous navigation code, so as it drives around on the surface, it's thinking the thoughts Mark told it how to think.[4] In developing this software, he's written some apps to graphically display the rover's state of mind -- green, yellow, and red patches cover the zone around the rover, showing where the rover thinks the terrain is very safe, moderately safe, or to be avoided like the plague. He's arguing for uploading software patches that will refine the rover's behavior, especially in rolling terrain such as that we'll be driving over (please!) before much longer. Even in the more benign terrain immediately around Spirit, you can see some improvements in the "before" and "after" images he produces.

Because of that meeting, I have to miss out on the press conference, but it's playing in the room -- muted, but I can see a little of what's going on. It looks like the boring feature names have started to win by default -- an animation points out East Hill Complex (with hills named A, B, C, ...), South Mesas, and so on. Yeesh.

The meeting ends just in time for me to go meet the LA Times photographer; five of the rover drivers (including me) are waiting for him. He starts taking our pictures as we pretend to do real work in the Sequencing MSA. He's getting some pictures of me while Frank's screen is showing on the big projector behind me, and Frank switches the rover cursor to the "hot Martian babe" cursor (which, for the record, was requested by our female rover driver[5] before she was promoted); the photographer, showing good instincts, instantly jumps all over that. So now the LA Times has a picture of me working, with this big picture of a hot Martian babe in the background. You can imagine how that's going to look in the newspaper. I make it clear to him that that's not my workstation display on the projector, and he promises not to run the picture. Of course he promises that, I'm still close enough to him to knock the camera out of his hands. We'll see what he does when he reaches the safety of the LA Times's editorial offices. The rule is, you don't let them get the picture in the first place. Thanks a lot, Frank.[6]

Frank produces those screen shots for the LA Times, with me serving as the nominal "art director," and he does a great job of it. The reporter likes one, so I give that one and Frank's favorite to the newsroom. I spend about an hour in there working with JPL's two caption writers, Whitney and Charli, trying to interpret the images for an international audience. It turns out that caption writing is its own art form; they think of all kinds of things that never would have occurred to me.

I promised the newsroom I'd handle some more interviews for them, so I do. Within minutes, I'm taping a radio interview with KNX 1070 in LA, which is weird because I listen to KNX every day to catch up on the news while I'm getting ready in the morning. There's some kind of weird echo-chamber effect in that, which would have really been emphasized if I'd actually heard the interview later, which doesn't happen. (But Takahashi-sensei does, and says he was impressed and that I handled myself well.) I also do an interview with 96 Rock in Raleigh ("with Chopper, Jimmy, and Taylor") -- sounds like yer typical wacky morning show, but they were really, really nice to me (as the KNX guy was), especially after I told them that I grew up only about an hour away from them, in Rocky Mount. "Hometown boy makes good," I guess.



Footnotes:

[1] Fellow RSVP developer and rover driver.

[2] Jeff wrote most of the low-level mobility flight software -- the code that controls the rovers' motors, among other things. He's also one of the rover drivers. Plus, he was the person who recommended me to Cooper in the first place; without Jeff's recommendation, I'd probably have never worked on MER at all.

[3] This still happens, five years on. Well, dammit, Jim, we're engineers, not comedians.

[4] It amazes me how long it took to start thinking of the rovers as "she," not "it." Now that's so natural that I can't remember thinking of them any other way, but it took quite a while, as you'll see.

[5] Sharon Laubach. RSVP can show you, instead of a rover, a human figure standing on the Martian terrain; this helps you get a sense of scale of the features ("Oh, that rock would more or less come up to my ankle"). The human figure Frank initially built in was a preppy-looking guy he'd created for some other project, and Sharon asked him to add a female figure. Frank did, but, being Frank, he gave the female figure green skin and antennae.

[6] All this is basically just me overreacting and generally being a jerk. The LA Times guys were a lot more professional than I gave them credit for here, as it turns out. Mainly, I was just paranoid about embarrassing MER: just one moment of carelessness can undo a lot of hard work by a lot of people I respect.

1 comment:

changcho said...

"There's another Mars story on Slashdot, so I post a comment about how we're using Java (and C++) to drive the rovers."

Ah, very interesting.