Live From Mars was active July 1996-December 1997.


The Mars Cameras are Critiqued

by Mike Malin

October 8 and 10, 1996

Two events important to the story of the Mars cameras occurred this week. On Tuesday, the electronic portions of the Mars Surveyor 1998 Orbiter Color Imager (which we call MARCI ("Marcy")) and Mars Surveyor 1998 Lander Descent Imager (MARDI) went through their Critical Design Review, and on Thursday the Mars Global Surveyor went through its Mission Readiness Review.

Reviews are meetings where you present to a group of experts the details of the work you have done, for them to carefully evaluate and to provide you advice based on their own knowledge and experience. It is like saving up all your homework assignments and class projects for a year (although you have also handed them in and they have been individually graded) and then having a meeting with not only your teachers, but other teachers from your school, the principal, and perhaps even professors from a nearby college or university. You get up in front of these people, tell them the results of your work, and they tell you what they think.

To some people, reviews can be very scary because the criticism can be harsh if you are not prepared, or you can be embarrassed by either not doing good work, or having missed something important. However, I like reviews because they give me the opportunity to pick the brains of experts who I would not otherwise get to think about my projects. I have learned from my own experience that I don't know everything, and so I very much like to seek help when I am doing something new (which is often the case). Reviews can be hard on one's ego, but their benefits far outweigh this negative feeling.

The MARCI and MARDI review was held at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. The chairman of the review (the person who leads the discussion and prepares the official report of the results) is also in charge of developing the system to operate future Mars missions. Among the other members of the review board were the JPL engineer in charge of science instruments for the Mars Pathfinder lander, a San Diego State University astronomer who builds and uses cameras on earth-bound telescopes, and the designer of the Mars Observer and Mars Global Surveyor cameras. Mike Caplinger, the lead engineer for the new cameras, presented most of the technical details of the design, with help from another of my engineers (Paul Otjens) and one our contractors, Charles Schmitz. The review lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (I drove to Pasadena from San Diego the night before, in order to be there in the morning).

MARCI and MARDI are on a very fast development schedule. We were selected less than a year ago, and must deliver the cameras to Lockheed Martin (the builder of the spacecraft) in 10 months from now. As a result, our review board felt that we still have some critical areas to work before we start building the electronics, although they also felt it would be hard to finish the cameras by August. They made several useful suggestions based on their common and diverse experiences in building and testing cameras, which we are now trying to incorporate into our near-term plans. In general, however, they thought we were ready to proceed, which was good news.

The Mars Global Surveyor review was for the entire mission: spacecraft, science instruments, launch vehicle, and the system of people and computers that will run the spacecraft after launch. The intent of this review was basically boiled down to one question: Is Mars Global Surveyor ready to launch next month? The review included the president and several vice presidents of the division of Lockheed Martin that built the spacecraft, the director of the Mars Exploration Office at JPL, JPL's chief engineer, and several highly experienced engineers and scientists from NASA research centers, private industry and universities.

To attend this review, I had to fly to Denver from San Diego Wednesday afternoon (after driving home the night before from Pasadena). The meeting began at 7:30 a.m. Both general and specific items of interest or concern were discussed until after 6:00 p.m. by more than 20 different presenters, including the project manager and several of his deputies. My presentation, which lasted about 20 minutes in mid-afternoon, discussed spacecraft testing at Cape Canaveral in which the Mars Orbiter Camera had participated, some repairs we had made to the camera since the last review, some of the potential problems we might face between now and launch, what we were doing to prevent anything going wrong, and what we would do if something did go wrong. This was much the same that everyone also presented, but each for their own portion of the mission.

Because more is riding on the results of this review, the presentations were very honest and the board's questions very probing. I think the general view was that the mission is in good shape and ready to launch, but that there were still things to worry about.

I'm writing this journal entry on the airplane flying back to San Diego. It's been an exhausting week!