Spirit Sol 455

The good news is that we're not dug in. The bad news is that we're not uphill.

Instead, we experienced alarmingly high levels of side-slip, gravity pulling us downhill as we tried to drive across the slope. The backoff worked, but then, only a couple of meters or so into the uphill segment, the sequence detected that we came too close to an obstacle and shut us down.

Ashitey tells me something I don't want to hear. "We can't make it," he says. "We should go back downhill and try to go around."

I hate it, but he's right. Straight uphill doesn't work. Crossing at a 45-degree angle doesn't work. Shallower angles -- either east or west -- take us into impassable slopes on one side, or rocks and an uncrossable berm on the other. The only way out is down.

Ashitey sets up a meeting among all the concerned parties. We gather in the SOWG room and, in short, agree that Ashitey's right. We'll have to go down.

Twelve meters or so downhill, there's what looks like a graded path around the side. My big concern is that we can't see all the way along the grade, so for all we know, we'll follow it to a certain point and then find that that way is blocked as well. But there's no way up from here, so it's the right next thing to try.

It's a complex drive. Ashitey and I are dumb enough to make it even harder on ourselves by adding a cross-slope leg after the downhill leg. But at least if it works, we'll have made real progress. If you can call a retreat progress. I guess we'll have made real regress, or something like that.

We also manage to pack in a couple of visits. The first is by science
fiction writer Bruce Sterling, whom Frank invited to come see us drive
a Mars rover. This is so wild I can't describe it.

Sterling's not what I expected. I don't know what I expected, but he's not it. He's short, dumpy, long-haired, laconic -- and creative, that part's no surprise. He takes one look at the six-wheeled rover with solar-panel wings and calls it a bug, which is a comparison that somehow never occurred to me, and I'm practically an avocational entomologist.

Our other visitor -- or group of visitors -- is brought around by Eric Baumgartner. They're a quartet of science fair winners from his kid's school, all around eleven or twelve years old. Plus two teachers. Ashitey and I do a good job with them, I think. He makes sure they look through the 3-D glasses, which appeals to everyone but especially kids. I don't think I'm generally very good with kids, but I remember being their age and being excited about science, and I'd have died for a trip like this. They're just like that -- a little intimidated at first, but grooving on it. I manage to get them to laugh and loosen up a little, and then they're just a bunch of smart kids having a blast. I love my job.

The long day goes on. We work apace. Jim Erickson shows up, with his usual grim look, and subtly chides us for adding the cross-slope leg. He's not the type to second-guess our decisions, but he's got a point to make and he makes it. We're putting in a lot of late nights, which exhausts the team. We've got to keep it simple. The extended mission is a marathon, not a sprint.

At this point, it's too late to gain anything by cutting the cross-slope leg. Since it's a sunk cost, we decide to leave it in for now, but we'll take it out if it ends up sucking up any more of our time. (It doesn't: the cross-slope leg makes it into the final sequence.)

We reach that point in the day where we're just waiting for the TAP/SIE to put everything in its final form. Today we put the time to good use. I've been worried about the fact that nobody really pays attention in the walkthroughs any more, which is partly because the complexity of the sequences, and the amount of stuff you have to know about the rover in order to follow along, is really overwhelming. So I break out a few pieces of the sequence and start going over them in detail -- an impromptu rover-driving course. When I see that people's brains are getting full, I declare success and move on to other things. It's only a little progress, but it's progress.

You can tell it's late, by the way. Jeff Favretto, following up on Erickson's earlier comments, says something about the value of getting out by 8:00 so we can spend time with our wives. (It's now nearly 10:00, and we'll be there another hour. We started twelve hours ago.) "I'm single, but if I don't leave by 8, I'll never get a girlfriend," Dan Moyers chimes in. And Favretto quips: "Dan, you'll have to leave a lot earlier than 8 if you want to get a girlfriend."


On a lighter note, Steve Squyres's book (Roving Mars) is coming out soon, and he's asked people on the project to help him make sure that the name of everyone involved in the project is listed in an appendix. This includes everyone from the project managers down to off-site contractors who sewed the parachutes. He had a good start already, but for the past week or so he's been beefing up the list, adding names as he's sent them.

So far he's got four thousand.

[Next post: sol 469, April 28.]


Jeff Brown said...

I'm wondering if this is an old entry. Steve's book came out in 2005, and my wife, Renate Brown, has her name on page 388.
Renate was part of the team at ILC Dover, in Frederica, Delaware, who sewed the airbags. She's immensely proud of her work. We went to KSC to watch the launch of Spirit, met Steve and, later, got him to autograph his book. He was great to talk to!
Jeff Brown

Scott Maxwell said...

@Jeff Yep, these are all old entries -- the blog is "real time," but five years delayed.

Renate has every right to be immensely proud of her work! She and her teammates obviously did a splendid job; we couldn't have landed safely without her (and them). Please tell her MER's Mars Rover Driver Team Lead said a hearty THANK YOU!

Sorry to have missed you at KSC -- I was there for Spirit's launch, too -- but if you guys are ever in the Pasadena area, contact me and it would be my pleasure to offer you a personal tour.

Dave said...

I came in this morning nice and early, and was going to ask the same question as Jeff Brown: I did some catch up reading and found out that you landed in Early 2009, not 2004: that Dick Cheney is still VP, not Joe Biden. (I know Wikipedia can be a bit innacurate, but 5 years out, and containing stuff that happens in the future... Wow! :-) ).
I guess that is the real answer to my question from last week - I couldn't understand how you're happily running around when you should be stuck in Troy.
I guess that this is for reasons of National Security that affects all NASA's work, rather than you being so incredibly behind on Blog Posting (There's busy, and then there's Five Years Behind busy!)
Anyway, keep up the good work.
Spoiler Alert to M&M readers
Spirit's rear right wheel will stop working in about 11 months or so.

Dave said...

And I meant front right wheel. Time Travel and reversing directions do bad things to my brain.

Scott Maxwell said...

@Dave There's a long story (well, not so much long as tedious :-) behind the five-year delay, but national security is not involved in it. All the work we do is unclassified, which is why we're allowed to give you all images returned by Spirit and Opportunity almost immediately after we get them. The mission would be a lot less fun for me if it worked any other way!

Thanks for reading!

ipparchus said...

Hi Scott, I`m a fan of your blog! I`d like to ask you something about Oppy. When (how many kilometers away)are we going to start seeing different kind of rocks in Oppy`s route? The phyllosilicate rocks are inside the wall of Endeavor or outside of it?

msh group said...


Scott Maxwell said...

@ipparchus According to the science team member I asked, the phyllosilicates are expected to show up starting 200-500 meters from the rim (hence, starting outside of the wall). That's still another 11-12km from here, so we have a way to go yet!

As a point of interest (I hope :-), "Endeavour" is always spelled with a "u" in this case -- it's named after the HMS Endeavour, one of Cook's ships of exploration.

Thanks for following along, both my blog and the mission itself!

ipparchus said...

Thank you very much Scott for your answer! I`m very glad Oppy won`t have to climb on the rim to find the phyllosilicates!