I am in Pasadena, California at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, attending an educator conference in conjunction with the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover. When I got word that this conference was happening, I immediately filled out the forms, wrote the essay, and submitted it even without knowing exactly how I was going to pay for it all. This is an opportunity I could not pass up.
I’m here for several reasons, the main one, of course, being to see the landing along with the people who built the rover in the first place, to be in the best place at the best time to witness history. I also came because I knew the people organizing the conference, people I’ve had the privilege of working with before for the NASA Explorer Schools and NASA/JPL Solar System Educator programs. Coming to JPL is like coming home. It’s been eight years, but walking back on lab brought back all the old excitement. For the people who work here it might be a daily job, but for me it’s the coolest place on the planet. Some people idolize professional athletes or Olympic medalists, movie stars, musicians, or politicians. I’ve met plenty of those sorts of people, and I’m impressed with the persistence and talent it took them to gain their recognition. But for me, the true rock stars are the scientists and engineers who plan, build, test, and fly robots and people into space. And I’m here to meet the ones who are taking on the most extreme sport of all: landing a rover on Mars.
Our conference has split into two groups, one consisting of elementary teachers and the rest of us middle and high school teachers and informal educators. Most are from around the Pasadena and greater LA areas. Some of us are from farther away: Utah, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and even New Jersey. We’ve mostly paid our own way here because we’re space junkies and dedicated to spreading the excitement of space exploration to our students.
Our leaders include Sheri Klug Boonstra from ASU and JPL and some of the people working with her at ASU’s Mars Education office, including Brooke Carson, and Jessica Swann. I’ve been to their Mars Student Imaging Project with four of my students in 2004. They’ve pulled people in from around the NASA education family, including Andrew Shaner out of the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute in Houston, whom I’ve e-mailed concerning our animation project. There are also several EPO people from JPL, including David Seidel, Ota Lutz, and David Delgado. I’ve worked with David and Ota on the NASA Explorer Schools workshops at JPL back in 2002 to 2004.
Our group is in the conference room in the 180 building at JPL (the administration building) and I have fond memories of this room, where I’ve helped conduct several workshops myself. I also had a very embarrassing moment here when, in the middle of presenting an activity on gravity assist maneuvers to 25 high school teachers from around the country, I accidentally got two neodymium magnets stuck up my nose. It’s a long story and maybe I’ll tell it some other time . . . .
The conference time is split into learning more about the Curiosity rover from the engineers and principal investigators (or PIs – they are the chief scientists on a particular instrument), taking tours of the labs where the rover was built, and practicing activities we can use in our classrooms that are built on Mars exploration and based on national education standards. I’ll talk more about the specific activities in a later post, but for this post I’ll describe the briefings and the tours.
The exact roster of speakers was a bit fluid based on who was available in between press conferences and meetings. We heard from Doug McCuistion, Director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program; Fuk Li, Manager of the Mars Exploration Program for JPL; Rob Manning, the Chief Engineer for Curiosity; and Ken Edgett, Principal Investigator for the MAHLI “hand lens” camera on the robotic arm. We also received regular updates from Dave Seidel as he attended the regular press conferences held over in the Von Karman Auditorium. So far the rover is directly on target, right down the centerline of its approach window so perfectly that a planned course maneuver on Friday was cancelled. All systems are in good health. The only glitch has been that the Mars 2001 Odyssey spacecraft, which is 11 years old now, lost one of its reaction wheels three weeks ago which made it necessary to bring the spare online. While it was in safe mode, it wasn’t able to move into position for the data relay with Curiosity, but that has since been corrected and it is in place. It will need to execute a precise roll to follow Curiosity down, and it is trickier to do with the spare wheel. It will either work or go back into safe mode. If it doesn’t, then we won’t get real-time data relay. The data will be stored on board Mars Recon Orbiter and relayed later. It won’t have any effect on Curiosity but we would like to know as soon as possible if it landed well. I’ll provide more detailed transcripts and video clips of the presentations later, but so far so good.
In addition to these briefings, we also toured parts of JPL on Friday. We visited High Bay 1, in Building 179, where Curiosity was assembled. We saw the In-Situ Instruments Lab (ISIL) where the ground spare of Curiosity will be tested first before any instructions are sent to Mars. I was impressed to see just how large and complex this rover is. I knew it was big, but it literally weighs about a ton and is the size of a compact car, with complex rocker bogey suspension, a robust robotic arm with a jack hammer drill (basically a small version of a miner’s widowmaker), a hand lens (MAHLI), and a core sampler that will deliver soil and rocks to the analysis instruments in the rover (SAM). The main camera mast has a panoramic camera, a laser for burning off dust, and a spectrometer for reading the elemental composition of rocks that the arm can’t reach. Altogether it’s got 17 cameras, 11 science instruments, nuclear batteries, antenna, etc. Amid all this sophisticated technology sits a simple sundial, for determining sun angle, unchanged in concept for thousands of years. Somehow I find this comforting.
We also visited the Mars Yard, where a mock up called Scarecrow will test for mobility on different surfaces. It weighs the same as Curiosity will on Mars, so they can drive it on different materials on different slopes to test for slippage. The rover has programming for autonomous driving on Mars – it can get itself out of danger, avoid rocks that are too large (although it can handle rocks up to 60 cm high), and drive to interesting outcrops all by itself.
We visited the gallery looking down into the Black Room of the Spaceflight Operations Facility (SFOF) and were told by George Evans how the room works to control and distribute information coming in from the Deep Space Network, such as the 70 and 34 meter dishes at Goldstone, CA. This is the nerve center of JPL, and will be a media circus on Sunday night. The media has already staked out territory around the Mars probe mockups that have been assembled on the main plaza just inside the gate, and I’m tempted to get some tape and mark off a wedge for myself. I write a blog, so that makes me press, right?
We also had the privilege, as a final keynote speaker, to hear from Leland Melvin, former NFL football player for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, two-time space shuttle astronaut, and now Associate Administrator for Education for NASA. He told of his background, the challenges he’s faced, and what it is like to live the dream. His most profound photo was showing a group of shuttle astronauts and ISS occupants who were truly international (Japanese, Russian, American, French) all sharing a meal in the space station.
Altogether we had a great two-day conference. I saw some old friends, got a chance to return to JPL during an exciting time, and learned more about the Mars Science Laboratory. But now comes the main event: The Landing!