Late-night musings before EDL

It is the very early hours of Sunday morning, and the rest of the household is asleep.  For the past few nights, I have been staying up late in an effort to shift my internal clock closer to Mars time in preparation for what will happen later today.

In the early evening, I will drive over to JPL and start making sure that the MSL Science Team is out of our usual rooms and all over in our “overflow” area. There are thousands of VIPs expected on-Lab for EDL, ranging from congresspeople to the NASA administrator and Buzz Aldrin to will.i.am. There will also be tons of press. And for the first time, our 300+ science team members will all be together.  All of these people have to be kept out from underfoot of the actual engineers who are monitoring EDL, so we’re getting out of the way and having our little landing party in another building.

(I say monitoring because we certainly don’t joystick the spacecraft to the surface of Mars.  In fact, MSL started in on the final set of commands that take it through EDL beginning several days ago; the engineers are keeping an eye on things, and making occasional parameter updates as needed.)

The science team doesn’t get to party for long; first shift starts a little over an hour after landing. We have the first days of instrument checkouts and rover health assessments pre-planned and ready to go, but we still have to make sure – one last time – that this is exactly what we want to tell the rover to do given the small amount of data we will have on the rover status immediately after landing.

My other project, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is in position to listen to MSL as it comes in for landing.  Not only that, but MRO’s camera HiRISE is going to try to take a picture of MSL on the parachute, just like they did for Mars Phoenix.  If you step back and think about it, this is an amazing feat: these are two pieces of hardware sent millions of miles away, carrying out commands that were given to them many days in advance.  If HiRISE is successful, it should be an even cooler picture than the Mars Phoenix one as MSL will be closer and the parachute is bigger.

On a personal note, if both MSL and HiRISE are successful it will be a big day for me, as I will be presenting the HiRISE picture at the press conference on Monday morning!  The HiRISE principal investigator (Alfred McEwen) doesn’t want to travel from Tucson to Pasadena for it, and the deputy principal investigator (Candy Hansen) doesn’t want to travel from Utah to do it either.  I think she doesn’t like to be at JPL for these sorts of things, ever since Mars Polar Lander was lost.  The MRO project really wanted someone from the HiRISE team to show the picture, and since I’m the HiRISE investigation scientist – their representative at JPL – they asked me to do it. So I hope to get a nap in sometime between landing and the 6:30 am prep for the press conference.  It will be my first one, and I’m so proud of being a part of the HiRISE team so I of course want to do well on their behalf.

On Thursday I met up with an old friend for lunch.  Gavin and I had done a summer student project at JPL twelve years ago when we were both undergrads.  He’s now at Johnson Space Center, but is one of the EDL guidance control people.  It turns out that MSL went to the human spaceflight people to figure out how to do a pinpoint landing – we’re trying to land MSL in a (relatively) small area instead of letting it bounce along the surface in airbags or plop it down anywhere inside a giant landing ellipse – and human spaceflight does it all the time.  (or, well, did.)  Part of the technique we’re using to guide the capsule through the atmosphere to the correct landing site was used on Apollo, and my friend adapted the algorithm and coded it into the MSL flight software.  Which is pretty amazing.

There are so many people who have touched this mission in one way or another, either directly such as my friend Gavin or indirectly such as the HiRISE team trying to figure out the best camera settings to capture a capsule on a parachute streaking past over 300 km away.  I, too, have left my fingerprints on MSL – they are all over the science operations procedures and wiki, and I hope that my efforts contribute to MSL being a success.

Got to get through landing first.

4 thoughts on “Late-night musings before EDL

  1. valeriel40 says:

    Wow. Can’t wait to read your follow up!

  2. Miles Shuman says:

    Will there be live streaming of the press conference?

  3. […] (ERT + 2 = MESZ Erdempfangszeit), ein Audio-Interview mit dem EDL-Sprecher A. Chen, Nature Blog und Planetary Wanderings zu HiRISE während MSL EDL, AstroBiology und PLoS Blog über den Skycrane, die Canberra Times zu […]

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