Spirit Sol 237

I have an interview this morning, with a reporter from the London Sunday Times. He's here to do a car-review-style piece on the rovers. The sample piece he emailed me makes it clear this is to be a light-hearted article, and I'm looking forward to it.

Only one problem: the press office sent me a time for the interview, but not a place. We eventually get that sorted out; it turns out the reporter's running late anyway, giving me time to attend a meeting to decide whether we should drive before the upcoming solar conjunction period.

My feeling is, no: we're receiving a good amount of solar energy right where we are, so why risk moving? Better to be conservative; sit still for the few remaining pre-conjunction sols. A bird in the hand, etc.

But I don't bother voicing this view, as I don't feel strongly about it and it rapidly becomes clear that everyone else thinks we should drive. The scientists are keen to visit Tikal, a spot about 9m away. Nine meters used to be a doddle -- not so long ago, we commonly drove ten times that far in a typical sol. But driving on slopes is trickier; we've been having a lot of trouble with our drives since we started climbing West Spur. What's more, we might have a narrow target to hit, and precision driving with these vehicles is always hard, even on level ground.

The tentative plan that emerges is to spend sol 237 finishing up our IDD work at Ebenezer and driving eight or nine meters to a spot called Anasazi_station, where we'll take nice PANCAMs of an interesting-looking rock called, you guessed it, Anasazi. On sol 238, we drive from Anasazi_station to Tikal, only about another three meters. On sol 239, we do fine positioning if needed to tweak our attitude so we can get more solar energy. That leaves us a contingency sol before the hard limit after sol 240 -- due to the upcoming solar conjunction, we will not drive after sol 240 no matter what.

That plan's fine by everyone in the room. But Jim Erickson is not in the room, and as Art points out, Jim already nixed the drive to Anasazi_station -- Jim wants to keep things simple, and to get us to our solar conjunction destination sooner rather than later. (Which is pretty much what I was thinking. Evidently, I'm project manager material.) This surprises Squyres, and he and Mark Adler decide they'll try to change Jim's mind: apparently they've refined their estimate of the start of conjunction, and Jim might have been thinking we had a sol less than we do.

Oh, and incidentally, everyone has already picked out a name for the spot where we spend solar conjunction. Wherever that may turn out to be, we're calling it "Conjunction Junction."

You'll never guess what they're planning to use as the wakeup song.

That's the end of the meeting and the start of my interview. The reporter, John Arlidge, is a tall skinny fellow accompanied by a photographer (Paul Harris). "John and Paul," I say, shaking hands. I could resist if they weren't British, but as it is ... "Where are George and Ringo?" I ask. They have the good grace to laugh at this, and we're off to the ISIL so they can get pictures of me pretending to drive the testbed rover.

John decides to start the interview while we're waiting for Paul to set up his equipment. "Noisy in here," he says. "Let's try a sound check." He puts the tape recorder on a table next to me. "Say anything," he says. "Tell me what you had for breakfast."

"I didn't have breakfast," I tell him. "I was so excited to come here and talk to you, I skipped it entirely."

He laughs and gives me the finger. "Fuck you," he says cheerfully.

So this is a reporter I can deal with.

I give John a little background about the rovers -- their basic capabilities, environmental conditions, what we've been up to, where we're going, stuff like that -- until Paul's ready. Then I don one of the anti-static coats -- we really wear these things when working in the testbed, but I feel like a dope because I realize it's going to make me look like a pharmacist in a commercial for headache pills -- and walk across the Mars-like sand to the testbed rover. I grin idiotically at Paul while he snaps some pictures of me standing there, sitting there pretending to drive the rover with a laptop, and so on. His camera's digital, so he shows me some of the pictures afterward, and I tell him, "I think the ones where I don't look like a homicidal maniac are the best ones." He agrees.

So then we all walk back to the sequencing room in Building 264. John, being smarter than Paul and me put together, falls behind us as he keeps pace with Charli, the attractive young woman from JPL's media office. (It's her second time this morning walking uphill across the Lab -- in high heels -- and she's slowing down.) Paul, it turns out, lives here now, in Woodland Hills, but he gets back to London a couple of times a year to visit his parents. I ask him about London and he asks me about the rovers, and I get the definite impression he's more interested in the vehicles than John is. John is more interested in Charli. As I said, he's clearly the smart one.

We spend another 45 minutes or an hour talking in the sequencing room, though it seems less of an interview and more of a brainstorming session -- brainstorming about what funny and clever things John could write in his article. Whether there's valet service on Mars, what kinds of girls you could pick up with a Mars rover ("smart, science-oriented, and very patient ones," is my answer), that kind of thing. Meanwhile Paul takes pictures; I've set up a drive animation to loop on the projection screen behind me, and I try not to look into the camera as he flits and shoots. Paul eventually puts his camera away, but has to haul it back out when John points out the "How's My Driving?" sign taped to the back of my chair.

Then it's over. Or nearly. "My last interview before you was with Damon Dash, the producer behind Jay-Z," John says. "He got a free Ford Explorer just for driving it around and saying whether it was bling. I bet you could do something like that."

"I don't think our ethics people would like that," I reply tactfully. Not that I haven't thought about it. But really: the job is worth more to me than some lousy car. I already get to drive the coolest vehicle in the solar system, what the hell do I need with a monstrous, gas-guzzling Ford Explorer?

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the news is not so good. Yestersol was supposed to be a touch-and-go, but when we get the data, it turns out we didn't go anywhere. Apparently, Chris badly underestimated the IDD sequence duration, so when the rover tried to drive, it noticed that the mobility time-of-day limit had passed and refused to move. This jeopardizes the long-term schedule we worked out earlier in the day, because it means we'll have to spend thisol redoing part of yestersol -- effectively, we blew our contingency sol before we even started.

"So Chris is fired," says Adler. "But he's rehired, because we need him for today."

It's uncommon for us to redo the previous sol like this, but it does make the sequencing easy -- we can usually just pick up yestersol's sequence, make a few minor changes (or not), and we're all done. Which is how it works out today. I have very little real work to do, I mainly struggle heroically to catch up with the email backlog that accumulated while I was out of town. (The backlog is exacerbated by worms that automatically spew email across the Lab. I read my email under a niche mailer on a Linux box, so I'm immune to the worms themselves, but I still have to put up with the junk messages they send out in their efforts to propagate. My productivity would double if the Lab would ban Windows, and I don't even use the fucking thing.)

Adler's under the weather, so he goes home and Jim Erickson fills in as Mission Manager for the sol. Jim hasn't worked on Spirit in a long time, and he's alarmed by some things we take for granted, like driving on sharp tilts. We're expecting a max tilt a little over 20 degrees thisol, so I set the limit (beyond which the rover will automatically stop moving) at 30 degrees. "We'd be freaking out on Opportunity right now," Jim says, looking at me suspiciously.

Ray (participating remotely, via conference call) reassures Jim that we do this all the time. Jim still looks worried even after Ray's reassurance, but then, Jim always looks like that. As the CAM progresses, Jim turns to me and asks, sotto voce, if I've worked on Opportunity yet. I tell him about my one chance to do so, which was lost because they were in a restricted sol and didn't need me. "You should work on Opportunity," he says. He vows to talk to Arthur about it when Arthur returns from travel. Fine by me!

I should have paid more attention to the drive sequence and less to my email. Jake Matijevic catches something I should have caught: since yestersol's drive failed, the rover set its goal-error flag, and we neglected to clear the flag in thisol's drive sequence. Thankfully, it's a trivial change, but I'm ashamed of missing it. (Normally I check the downlink report to see if any flags need to be cleared, but because of the late downlink the report hadn't been written yet when I checked, and I forgot to recheck it later. But I should have thought of it anyway, downlink report or no downlink report. Sheesh, how long have I been doing this?) And I don't feel any better when Ray says, "Good thing you were there, Jake," in a tone that makes it clear that, shall we say, he agrees I should have caught it.

He's right, though, that it is a good thing Jake was there: we already blew our only contingency sol, and this rookie mistake would have cost us another. If he hadn't been on the alert, we'd have lost a significant pre-conjunction science opportunity.

I reflexively beat myself up over this, but after reflecting on it a while, I start to feel less bad. This is why we have teams, after all: you're going to fuck up once in a while, and other people are there to backstop you. Which makes me realize that I haven't been doing my part as a team member -- I tend to do other things during the parts of the sequence walkthrough and CAM that don't directly affect me. So I decide to pay more attention during these meetings, in the hope that I can pay Jake's favor back, or at least pay it forward.

When the CAM is over, I start looking ahead at the schedule. From now until solar conjunction, I'm the only rover driver scheduled for Spirit. There's a floater scheduled for each of those sols, but it's not the same as having a second RP who's exclusively dedicated to the same rover. And they're going to be unusually important and challenging sols, with precision driving, and likely IDD on each sol, to boot. We don't have any more contingency sols to spend, and if we get something wrong, we could actually lose the vehicle: if I manage to put Spirit in a poor solar attitude before we lose contact during conjunction, she could drain her batteries, fail to heat, and the cold could kill her.

It's all going to be up to me.

It's a good thing Jake is there.

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