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.

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