Spirit Sol 733

The thing is, I'm not even supposed to be working today. I originally had a doctor's appointment, which I rescheduled to next week so that I wouldn't miss the big Two-Earth-Years-On-Mars celebration over at von Karman Auditorium. It was supposed to be a big deal; the Lab's making a fuss over it, inviting press and congressmen, and so on. And there's usually free cake at these things. So, you know. Cake.

Then, last week, I got a call from John Callas. "Are you working next Tuesday?" he asked.

"Nope," I told him.

"Okaaay," he said slowly. "Well, you know that Congressman Drier is coming next week for the anniversary celebration? We wanted someone to help him pick out a science target, and Dr. Elachi requested you specifically."

Well, if the Director of the Lab wants me specifically .... Wait a minute, I think as I hang up with John. How would Charles Elachi even know who the heck I am? What I figure is, he's remembering a few weeks back, when he and Pete Theisinger brought some tour group through and I gave them a spiel. He probably said, "That guy did a pretty good job -- whoever he was, use him."

However it happened, I'm now on shift on Spirit. (And I'm getting teased a lot about being famous. Worse, the story has now mutated -- Charles Elachi asked for me by name, according to the new version, which is not how I heard it, anyway. But let's leave all that aside.) The plan for Drier's visit crystallizes into having him choose which of a pair of science targets we're going to take an image of before we drive today. (It was originally to choose between a couple of IDD targets, but we're not IDDing today, so that's out.) Taking these images is, of course, not my job, but as Sharon Laubach says, "What we're going to do is: fake it."

I can do that.

I talk to the science team and get a sense of the two targets we're going to have the guy choose between. The first is a patch of light soil -- indicating maybe salts, which of course are mobilized by water, which is what we're all about. The other choice is a pair of nearby rocks, which Larry Crumpler thinks might represent the leading edge of an ancient lava flow; studying them might give us clues about the properties of the lava and of the paleoclimate on Mars at that time.

The sequencing itself is pretty straightforward -- a relatively simple drive. And that's a good thing, because one way or another, the Congressman's impending visit keeps interrupting.

First, Jim Erickson comes in, followed quickly by John Callas, Pete Theisinger, and Fouk Li. They ask me to go over what I plan to show Drier.

"Well, I'm gonna do the whole spiel about where we are, how we work, and so forth. Then I'm gonna show him the first picture, with the salts, and then the second picture, with the two rocks, and then invite our guest to choose which one we should take the picture of."

Jim cocks an eyebrow at me, playing the Congressman's part. "So you're saying, no matter which one I choose, the scientists will be unhappy?"

"I'm saying, either way, the scientists will be equally happy," I reply smoothly. "They're both excellent choices."

That seems to work. They flutter a bit more, make a couple of good suggestions, and then disappear again.

I get back to work, and the next thing I know, it's coming up on time for the anniversary celebration and Congressman Drier's still not here. I'm not fretting; I've got plenty to do. Besides, he's one of the main celebrants -- a star of the show. They'll wait for him.

But they are trying to keep from getting too far behind, as I discover when Callas pops in. "Uh, we're running kind of late," he says. "Try to keep it to about thirty seconds." He pops out again.

I can't help but laugh about this. Whatever they want, I figure.

At last, Congressman Drier and his entourage show up. One guy's from the LA Times, another's taking pictures (I assume for the press, though I don't know). One is Sally Ride.

I do the usual speech, explaining what they're looking at, how the commanding process works, and so on -- trying to keep it short, although of course I have no hope of keeping it down to thirty seconds. Still, they don't seem terribly anxious to leave, which I take to be a good sign.

I get to the point about choosing between the two images, and I start this way. "Just as in Congress, you can't spend every dollar you want, so it is that we can't take every picture we want."

"Ah, we just spend all of 'em!" Congressman Drier says.

"Uh, you do remember that the LA Times is here, right?" I tease him.

He doesn't want to choose either picture, showing his political instincts, so we agree to flip a coin. The rocks win. I talk to them a little more about where we'll go from here, answering questions from the congressman and his group, and they move on.

As they're leaving, I take my chance to say, "The Sally Ride?"

She grins. "The Sally Ride," she confirms.

I don't meet a lot of people with cooler jobs than mine, but the first American woman in space is on the short list. "I remember watching your shuttle go up," I tell her. "That was awesome."

She grins again. "It was cool for me, too," she says.

Overall, I thought the visit went quite well, and I'm not the only one. As soon as our guests are out of earshot, people start congratulating me. Including Squyres, who I didn't realize was listening in on the telecon: "Good job, man," he says. "That was really well done!" Coming from someone like Steve Squyres, that's high praise indeed.

So then we all troop down to von Karman for the festivities and cake. They turn out to be filming a TV show, with multiple cameras, including one on a boom that gets those swooping shots of the audience. We are of course late -- although the Congressman and his crew are still not there, and don't show up for another 20 minutes or so -- so I end up standing at the back, with Mark and Ashitey and Ashley and Craig Leff. Waiting is not so bad, though; on the big video screens at the front, they're flashing congratulatory messages emailed from people around the world. One says that she gets so lost in looking at the images sometimes that she automatically starts planning hikes in them. "I have to remind myself that these images are on Mars!"

"I and my ten-year-old son have been following the progress of the two rovers every day since they landed," writes another woman. "Thank you."

When the thing gets started at last, it's pretty much what I would have expected, with Elachi and others saying that it's not the machines, it's the people, and so on. And the mayor of La Canada Flintridge presents us with a proclamation from the city, as well as taking a few good-natured jabs at the mayor of Pasadena (who sent a similar proclamation in absentia). In between, they show video segments that I suppose will form the main part of whatever this TV show ends up being. I'm even in some of them -- in the foreground, yet; they used some of the video footage they shot when they were putting together B-roll for the CBS Evening News. Every time I show up on the screen, the people around me rib me about it. It's cool, though.

One of the speakers is none other than Steve Squyres, who couldn't be here in person, so they put up a picture of him and pipe in his voice via phone. "Most of the team's so used to me being just a voice on the phone that this is really the most fitting way to do it anyhow," he jokes.

His little spiel is about teamwork. "What's really made these rovers succeed is teamwork. In fact, I was just listening in as one of our rover drivers, Scott Maxwell, was talking about a couple of science targets to Congressman Drier. Now, he's an engineer. But his explanation of the science was as good as I could have imagined. And that's the kind of teamwork I'm talking about, between the scientists and engineers."

Aw, shucks.[1]

Today has got to rank among the best days of my life. It's so great, I don't even care that in the end, there's no cake.


[1] I might as well admit it. I was ... there's a Yiddish word for this, kvelling. It's when you're so happy there's a light in your tummy and it's shining out of you no matter what you do about it. I was kvelling.

1 comment:

kevinwparker said...

I had the good fortune to meet Sally Ride at an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of Apollo-Soyuz, way back in 1985. Despite being there along with half-a-dozen astronauts, the current administrator of NASA, and Carl Sagan, she was the most impressive person in attendance. She's still one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met.