Live From Mars was active July 1996-December 1997.


PART 1: The days before landing
PART 2: Subscribing/unsubscribing: how to do it


As you drive up to JPL, it's clearly not business as usual. Outside
the main gates are a posse of satellite trucks, square and round and
odd-shaped dishes pointed to the sky. Down below, the sidewalks are
criss-crossed with metal ductwork, safeguarding cables. It seems a
metaphor for what's to go on this week. You only see the stars by
paying attention to worldly details down here on Earth. Mars
Pathfinder will only get to the Red Planet if the logistics have gone
well, and go well.

Inside Von Karman, with the mighty Voyager spacecraft lined up to
left, it's the first press conference. The first thing you notice
about the Pathfinder mission team is how young so many of them are.
There's a "veteran" here and there, like Project Manager Tony Spear.
But Matt Golombek, project scientist, Rob Manning (Flight System --
meaning the spacecraft on its way to Mars -- Chief Engineer) and
Richard Cook, mission manager, are a new generation. Their briefing is
upbeat: things have gone well to date. And listening to Matt Golombek
review the science that can be done, the excitement builds in the
audience. For 21 years after Viking humans have not gone back to the
Red Planet -- at least successfully. There's been at least 2 Russian
failures, and one American. And listening to the engineers, you
wonder, how can Pathfinder possibly have its parachute and airbags
inflate, its retro-rockets fire, on cue -- after 7 months in space.
Sitting in the audience, watching cameramen dance around the full-size
model on its painted drop cloth with rust-red rocks, I can't help
feeling nervous, more nervous than the Pathfinder team, it seems.

Later that afternoon we are on the last tour of Mission Control before
the area is buttoned up for the landing, set for 3 days hence. It's
pretty empty: Jennifer Harris, flight director for Sol 1, is there,
monitoring spacecraft data. One sign reads: OBJECTS ON THE CALENDAR
ARE CLOSER THEN THEY APPEAR. True for Pathfinder, and true also for
our upcoming live 2-hour special. Like the spacecraft we also rely on
satellite dishes, and there are a hundred and one things to go wrong.
Also like Pathfinder we rely on a team of people, also working hard.
But hearing that it's only 40-50 people who "fly" Pathfinder, it seems
an amazing accomplishment, almost more impressive than the hundreds of
people it's taken to fly previous missions.

Out on the mall is evidence of what the spacecraft's really like: a
huge cluster of airbags, like a giant bunch of grapes, shows what the
spacecraft is going to look like when it bounces down on the surface.

It's an amazing time to be at an amazing place. 

Today the press conference is once more upbeat: but it's followed by
one involving NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. People have to be
grown-up enough to understand that bold things, like Pathfinder, run
risks. I want my people to try, and if they fail, learn from their
mistakes and try again. It's an unusually frank statement, but it
matches Matt Golombek's blunt reponse to a press question: no
shilly-shallying: we don't think any dust-storm (something talked
about in the media inthe past few days) will deposit enough dust to
impair the mission. He cites Viking data: crisp, even blunt, unlike
the polite replies to oddball press questions served up by many
others. It's as if the entire team is trimmed down to fitting weight,
no time for anything other than facts.

But amid the seriousness, there's some time for fun and human
feelings. Early on July 3rd, the Mars Global Surveyor team march en
masse to the Mars Pathfinder offices. There are red and blue balloons
for nearly everyone in sight! Glenn Cunningham on behalf of MGS
presents large framed posters to Tony Spear and others. MGS's time
will come. Now it's MPF that's on the front-burner.

07:00 The first briefing of what should be landing day. Overnight
they'd looked at their position, and realized there was no need for a
trajectory correction maneuver: they were within 45 kilometers of
where they needed to be, close to some higher features which,
navigator Pieter Kallemeyn said, made the planetary geologists happy.
Rough enough to be interesting, gentle enough not to trouble the
spacecraft. Maybe. Probably. Within 3.5 hours the spacecraft should be
on the surface. For some of the team, like Pieter, their job is almost
done. For others, the excitement's just beginning, with what they hope
will be days of Rover operations on the surface.

Downtown the Planetary Society's PLANETFEST starts off as a huge
success, people thronging everywhere. A large screen projection system
brings in NASA-TV, and people sit expectantly, listening to the blow
by blow coverage of the mission. Upstairs, I try and time my
presentation on LIVE FROM MARS to the actual landing . I run the
sequence showing what should happen over Mars at just the same time as
the flight plan calls for the events to happen. For almost a year I've
been using the wonderful NASA/Georgia Tech animation. It's hard to
believe that it's now happening -- for real -- on Mars.

Back at JPL -- SUCCESS. There's a radio signaling that Pathfinder has
safely met the surface. In the press room managers and reporters alike
cheer. On the mall, over gyros and grape leaves (the center cafeteria
is shut today: it's a national holiday for most of Americans, but for
JPL Pathfinder's arrival is celebration enough. The red rockets over
Mars are the pyrotechnics which have obviously worked to bring this
ambitious spacecraft to the surface. Fireworks on the Red Planet! Now,
a wait till 14:07 until the first real data is expected.


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