Spirit Stalled

January 29th, 2010

By Brianna Aubin

On January 26th, 2213 days into its mission, NASA declared the Mars rover Spirit, with 1-2 wheels inoperative and the rover itself stuck in a drift, a “stationary research station.”  It isn’t dead yet; rover drivers will attempt to orient the rover in such a way as to take maximum advantage of the lessening winter sun while conducting stationary research, but after roaming the surface of Mars for more than six Earth years, it’s safe to say that from here on out, Spirit’s days are numbered.

Normally my interest in the average space mission is minimal, despite my work.  I keep up with the breaking news through a subscription to Aviation Week, but my reasons for doing so are usually more professional than personal.  But the Mars program is different.  In the spring of 2003, I was a junior in my high school physics class when my teacher, who knew of my space ambitions, tipped me onto a NASA program that one of the other science teachers was interested in trying to participate in.  It was called the Athena Student Interns Program, or ASIP, and the objective was to help high school students get involved with the not-yet-launched Mars Rovers.

Well of course this was right up my alley, so I went straight to Mr. Micheau, the teacher in question, to figure out what was going on.  He said that he was first going to hold a meeting to gauge interest, and then pick two students from that group and submit an application to participate.  We had to each write a short essay on why Mr. Micheau should pick us for the team, and then once he had decided who would work with him, we would submit the NASA application. 

Of course I was a shoo-in; I was one of my physics teacher’s best students and both teachers knew how interested I was in space.  The other pick was someone I didn’t know beforehand, a guy named Fila Estrada who had applied more for the fun of it than anything else.  Our application to NASA took some time to come back; they kept delaying, which is unfortunately a common trait amongst the NASA bureaucracy.  But finally I checked with Mr. Micheau one day to find that the answers had returned and that we were in!  I practically floated back down the stairs on the way to band class.

Our scientist-mentor was a geologist who worked at the University of Chicago, Dr. Tom Economou.  His work was with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and he didn’t really seem to know what to do with the two teenagers and high school science teacher that had been placed into his care.  We drove out to UC a few times to meet with him, but nothing much ever came of it and he never really had anything for us to do, which didn’t exactly endear him to me.  (Later on I bought and read the book Sojourner: An Insider’s View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission, which is excellent, and found out to my amusement that at least a few members of the Sojourner team agreed with me.) 

The person coordinating the ASIP program was Cassie Bowman, who had been working with NASA in various education outreach roles for a while.  She was the one who kept track of all the teams (there were 13), organized our teleconferences, and coordinated our activities the two times we got to go out to JPL.  Her husband Judd often tagged along for those outings; he was studying astrophysics at MIT when I first met him.  Now he’s a post-doc at Cal-Tech and she works out at the Laboratory.  They’ve proclaimed the living-room couch open to me should I ever have an interview in the area, but so far I haven’t had a chance to take advantage of it.

In order to fulfill the requirements of the ASIP program, we were also required to perform a certain number of outreach activities, which basically meant talking about the rovers to whoever we could get to listen.  My first presentation was to my astronomy class; I’d asked the teacher if I could have 20 minutes and he agreed.  Unfortunately for me though, that 20 minutes was scheduled to take place on the last day of school before Christmas break, which I was afraid would mean that the other students would be less interested in what I had to say than in when the bell would ring and let them out of class.  Additionally, since the presentation was due to an extracurricular activity rather than a scholastic necessity, I was afraid that the class would get annoyed with me for showing off and showing them up.  And of course, underneath these more practical concerns was the good old fear of public speaking, especially when it meant having to give such a long presentation while flying completely solo.

As though all of these concerns weren’t enough to worry about, I woke up that morning with a slightly scratchy voice and a sore throat.  My class was scheduled for about 10am, and I got there with the notes in my hand.  My teacher told the class that I’d be talking today instead of him and handed it all over.  Mr. Micheau was watching from the back of the room through a connecting door to the next classroom.  And aside from the fact that the presentation actually ended up taking 40 minutes instead of 20 (I’d underestimated how much to include), it actually went great!  Far from having to deal with an apathetic and annoyed group of students, I actually ended up dealing with an interested and animated one.  Moreover, I’d prepared so well that my notes ended up spending the entire 40 minutes sitting unused on the desk.  It turned out that when I was talking about something I was truly interested in and knowledgeable about, I actually had something of a gift for public speaking.  Of course my throat wasn’t happy when it was over, but by any standard the presentation had gone wonderfully.  I haven’t been afraid of giving presentations since.

Not long after that, the Rovers landed successfully on Mars, and then our PR work got serious.  Fila and I spent one Saturday afternoon working the rover display at the Adler Planetarium in the city, and all three of us gave two presentations at the local library to a group of what was probably about 50 people each time.  I also gave another solo presentation to a class, and the three of us were invited to speak to a couple of local groups. 

Around this time I noticed that a girl on one of the other teams had mentioned that she had struck up a pen friendship with one of the JPL robotics engineers, a guy named Mike who had worked with the rover circuitry.  Being my usual impertinent self I figured that if he was willing to write to one high school student then he might be willing to write to another, and I asked the other girl for his email.  She gave it to me and I contacted him.  He wrote back that he wasn’t much of a typist, but so long as I was willing to put up with that he’d be happy to keep in touch.  I was and he did.  Since then we’ve seen each other in person twice: a brief meeting when I got to go to JPL for the rovers, and a slightly longer one about a year and a half ago when I went to San Diego for a conference and took a train down to see him for a couple of days afterward (touring the Laboratory is much more fun when you actually understand what you’re looking at).  Despite this dearth of personal contact, however, meeting him was probably the best part of ASIP for me, and he is currently one of my closest friends.

Anyway, once the rovers had landed, each of the 13 teams were going to get to spend a week at JPL with their mentors participating in the meetings and doing work for the Rovers.  The first team in the rotation was working with Steve Squyres; they were present for Spirit’s landing and got to tag along with the Project Investigator (PI) for the ride.  The rest of us didn’t have quite as much fun, but when you’re a high school student watching a flight mission at the Laboratory, nobody’s keeping track of the details.  Our team was one of the last on the rotation; we came into Pasadena around late March and promptly got put to work sifting through data for the scientists.  Back then the rovers were running on Mars time and our first shift with Spirit started (predictably) around midnight, which meant our sleep schedules were forced to run off the rails right from the first.  I was put to work finding pictures of the Columbia hills, named for the recently exploded shuttle and the then-eventual destination of the Spirit rover.  Clocks were everywhere, recording what time it was in Pasadena, Gusev, and Meridiani; many of the scientists were wearing two wristwatches, one each for Earth and Mars.  There was free ice cream available for all, courtesy of some local company who had promised to keep the rover operators supplied free of charge for the first ninety days of the mission.  In between shifts we got a tour of JPL, explored Pasadena, and attempted to get our bodies to rest on our very awkward schedule.  Despite our late position in the rotation though, we did manage to get one piece of excitement; that was the week Steve Squyres and co. broke one of their big stories about water on Mars.  The first conference was ironically held in DC (what’s the point of being in Rovertown when the big news isn’t going to be broken there anyway?), but the second conference was at JPL and we got to watch as Squyres talked and the reporters asked what were sometimes very strange questions (If Spirit or Opportunity actually landed in some giant monster’s footprint, how would you know?).  Later in the week, when we were placed on the Opportunity shift to get ourselves back on something resembling a normal schedule, we got to meet the PI for ourselves, whereupon we found out that he was a really great guy.  (We also found out that his average altitude for that year was something around 5,000 feet and that he played the guitar, but that’s another story.)

Once we got home at the end of it, there wasn’t much left.  A couple of last presentations, some wrap-up teleconference activities, and most of us drifted apart.  Fila and I were both graduating high school that year, so we didn’t interact much with Mr. Micheau once it was over.  I’ve seen him and my old physics teacher a few times since in return visits to my school, so they know what I’m doing, but that’s about it. 

When the Mars rovers first landed, the mission life expectancy was approximately 90 days; they were expected to stutter and die due to lack of power before I graduated high school.  But in fact the experts’ estimations about Martian dust obscuring the solar panels, as well as the sheer amount of work and skill that went into building those two little golf carts, was such that the Mars rovers are still running today, with me halfway through my graduate degree.  The Onion even printed a joke article about it, saying that the Rovers were getting really bored and that the JPL controllers had to start preventing them from committing suicide moves.  I shared the article with Mike and teased him that they must have made a mistake and accidentally sent a couple of Energizer bunnies to Mars; he laughed and agreed.  Even now the problem is not Spirit itself, but the fact that Spirit is stuck.  I’ve never thought much of the NASA bureaucracy, but when it comes to the NASA techs and engineers, they are quite simply amongst the best in the business. 

Now Spirit’s on the critical list, and it hasn’t got much time left.  I’d love to think that someday some NASA astronauts would bring the girl home and put her in the Smithsonian where she belongs, but at our current rate of progress with regards to human exploration, that’s probably not going to happen for a long, long time.  So rest in peace Spirit.  Your presence on the Red Planet, along with that of Opportunity’s (still going!), are truly fitting monuments to the greatness of that which put you there.

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3 Responses to “Spirit Stalled”

  1. larry |

    A very good article.
    What do you think of Obamas plan to cut funding on some NASA projects?

  2. Brianna |

    I more or less expected it; the fact that its long-term goals are controlled by partisan poltiics (new administration, new objective) means that they have would have trouble achieving a long-term objective even if their management wasn’t a bunch of idiot, paper-pushing, government bureaucrats. I have great respect for the technical men and women of NASA, but the management? Let’s not go there. Also, NASA funding really isn’t more than a rounding error when it comes to budget battles, but it’s a very visible subject which many people think sucks up more money than it does, which makes it a target anyway.

    As for how I feel about it personally… just sad. The way our country has all but given up on the values of achievement, innovation and exploration is worse than disgusting, it’s one of the hallmarks of civilizational suicide.

  3. Tom |

    Very nice article, Brianna. It struck me as a perfect example of the limitless payoffs from investments in cutting-edge science and technology like space exploration and manned spaceflight. In addition to the tangible benefits, the intangibles like inspiring students to broaden their thinking and devote themselves to challenging professions are worth far more than the dollars spent.

    Every time I hear someone say something like “Why should we spend money to send people into space when we have hungry people at home?” I realize I’m in the presence of a small mind. When we close our minds, shut down our imaginations, and limit our ambitions we begin to die as a society.

    It’s absolutely fascinating to see how far the rovers have exceeded their design limits and all reasonable expectations. And it’s inspirational to know that we have the kind of dedicated, brilliant people who can make that happen and the kind of society that permits them to do it.

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