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To MARS with MER - MER the Mission

Art Thompson
ATLO Systems Lead
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Interviewed in the System Test Complex in the Mission Support Operations Building, Kennedy Space Center, FL, in late May 2003

P2K: Very early on in ATLO you said one of the big things was going to be to get the different parts of the spacecraft to play together. Have you found any "bullies," anybody who's been kicking up trouble for you?

Art Thompson: No, actually, all parts played pretty well together. We have to learn about how things work. That's part of ATLO... understanding the behavior of all the parts and making them play together. But for the most part they've all been pretty well behaved.

P2K: What's been the biggest "up" and the biggest "down" in the whole ATLO process?

Art Thompson: I think the biggest "up" is to see two spacecraft come together so quickly. In fact, if you think about it, MER-2 is not even a year old yet. It was born on July 1 (2002), when we got our first piece of hardware in, and we're going to be launching before she's a year old. MER-1 was born in March and really didn't get her flight computer until around June, also. And to see these two spacecraft come together in under a year and get ready for flight is amazing.

Some of the low points are when we have it all built up and we think we're pretty much good to go for launch, and we realized we had to tear it down to fix a circuit in one of our boards. We built it back up, got it all back together, thought we were pretty much good to fly again, and we found another problem, and that actually threatened launch. But we've worked through that and we're back on the upside.

P2K: How typical is it to have things like that happen at this stage of the process?

Art Thompson: It's very common in ATLO to have things go wrong just as you're approaching your launch flow. I will say on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, in my experience, we've had a couple of pretty big hiccups which are a little more severe than what we would normally have experienced.

P2K: What do those come from-technical issues, schedule issues? Where do they come from?

Art Thompson: Well, it's such a complex spacecraft. This is probably one of the most complicated spacecraft ever manufactured, and we're building not only one but two. We have a barebones staff here which is very qualified, but we're stretched between two different spacecraft. And we found these, we did discover the problems before launch, and we discovered them in time to get them fixed. And that is actually a very exhilarating thing, to see how the team reacts when a problem does occur.

P2K: Your job is, in some sense, to kick the tires, to test the system until it breaks, then fix the system. How successful have you been?

Art Thompson: Well, the ultimate answer to that question will come next January when we're on Mars. (The) thing lands successfully, opens up, drives off and takes a really nice panorama, then we'll claim we were very successful. Short of a complete, successful mission, we will feel we have not done our job if we do not attain complete mission success.

P2K: Those bookshelves behind you when we first met you were pretty darn empty. They were just sort of wood and maybe one or two volumes. What's in those volumes that are sitting there now?

Art Thompson: Well, every one of those binders over there is a test procedure that we've run on the spacecraft. And from this angle you see they're all green. Those represent just the MER-2 spacecraft. In fact, they go on beyond this picture. Every time we do anything on the spacecraft we have a detailed test procedure that we've reviewed. We've run it in the test bed, if possible. We then update the expected values and we run it on the spacecraft many times, always getting better results, we hope. And this is how we've documented. Each one of these is an actual "as-run" procedure.

P2K: One of the things that we talked to you about is the fact that this is a very human project. It's not just technology that has to work together; humans have to work together. How have your human cogs in the wheel fitted together?

Art Thompson: The human interaction on this project has been outstanding. There's usually friction between different factions on the project: the scientists versus the engineers, mechanical versus the electrical, system test versus electronics. This team has come together, it's jelled so well; their interpersonal relationships are outstanding. The spacecraft itself, actually, we think of it as a person, and she has a personality that we've come to know and love. She reacts differently to different stimuli, and we have to understand that for both MER-1 and MER-2.

P2K: Have the spacecraft developed personalities yet?

Art Thompson: Absolutely. Basically, the two spacecraft react at different levels, different stages, so we have to adjust parameters to make sure that we understand which spacecraft we're working with. Different current draws, which tells us the health or the state of the vehicle. We're constantly updating our understanding of either vehicle, and one of the things that our test team has done is we've intentionally not segregated them. They work one day on MER-1, the next day they'll come over and work on MER-2. And sometimes that can be a little confusing, but it's really good to see how the team comes over and realizes within the first five or ten minutes which spacecraft they're working on, just from looking at the telemetry.

P2K: I'm trying to get some adjectives to describe the personalities of these two critters that you've been raising.

Art Thompson: Okay. "MER-1 and MER-2, going out on a date." I got you now.

MER-1 is actually the older sibling. For the most part I think she's a little bit better behaved. She's a better girl. She does what you expect her to do. You can count on her getting the job done. MER-2 is the younger child, the younger sibling, who tends to be a little bit more spoiled sometimes. She's used to getting what she wants. An example: MER-2 had some problems, we had some parts that needed to be reworked, and what we ended up doing is going over and actually taking parts from MER-1 and putting in on MER-2 so that MER-2 can continue down the flow. MER-2 is going to be the first launch, so we had to get her ready. MER-2 tends to show problems more. Oftentimes it's because we're "pathfinding" with MER-2; we're going down, integrating hardware that MER-1 hasn't done yet. So even though MER-1 was born first, she actually took her time in some of our system tests in a flight configuration but not in a surface configuration. So I do think of MER-2 as the spoiled younger child.

P2K: So why are you throwing her out the door first to make her way in the cold, cruel Universe?

Art Thompson: MER-1 actually led, we did all our experimentation on MER-1 to understand the cruise configuration, so we spent a lot of time on MER-1 in that configuration. When MER-2 was born, we actually bypassed the cruise configuration and went right to the surface configuration, which ultimately is the most important configuration, although I guess you could argue if we don't make it to the surface, the surface configuration doesn't do you any good. But MER-1 validated the cruise configuration, MER-2 went to surface, which means she was ready first. So we integrated her appendages, her cameras, her arms, her science payload, and actually we drove MER-2 first by about six weeks. So she is about six weeks to two months more mature, physically, than MER-1.

P2K: We just asked Pete Theisinger what he learned in the two years that we've been interviewing, following the process. What have you learned about the spacecraft, about NASA, about JPL, about your colleagues, or about yourself in the long months of ATLO?

Art Thompson: Well, I'm continuously amazed at how people step up to the plate when they have to. When we started ATLO we went out and recruited what we thought was a very good team, and to see the team mature, to see the team step up to the plate when we have problems, was truly amazing. You push 'em to the limit and you don't think there's any possible solution to the problem that you just encountered. And to see how, you always realize there's just a little bit more you can give. And I'm trying not to sound cliché-ish, but this isn't just a job. We're doing something that very few people have an opportunity to ever get to do. And when you think you've been beaten down, when you think that you've reached a point where there's no solution, you find it either in yourself or oftentimes your colleagues will come by, and they'll cheer you up, they'll pep you up, and they'll come up with a solution for you. And I think as a team we carry each other.

P2K: You guys are working pretty long hours and curveballs keep on coming-or maybe they're fastballs, I'm not quite sure what the metaphor should be.

Art Thompson: A little of both.

P2K: How do you keep going? How do you get up in the morning and say, "I've got a 5 o'clock session, I've got to get there." How do you come to work with the right attitude when you know you're going to get more curveballs and fastballs and some of them are going to hit you?

Art Thompson: That's actually part of working a flight project, that's not just unique to ATLO, assembly, test, launch operations. But before you take this position you've got to understand that that's what this job entails. It's pretty much a couple months of boredom followed by ten, twelve months of terror to get to the pad. And then when we launch these puppies you really can't relax all that much because you're flying with them, and what happens to the spacecraft happens to you. And when they're on the surface and they're driving around, you feel that sense of accomplishment, then there's the relief. But when this project's over, the next job will come along, and you know that when you sign up to do it that this is what you're in for.

P2K: Are you going to chill out, are you going to take it easy before the next project?

Art Thompson: Probably not. Most of us are actually heading off to mission operations, so as soon as we get these up we're heading back to JPL and we'll be assimilated into the mission operations team and we'll be learning how to fly them all over again and working with a whole new team to make these a very successful surface mission.

P2K: How did you get started? What led you to this career?

Art Thompson: Actually, I've always wanted to be either an Air Force pilot or work for NASA. Actually, I was hoping to be an astronaut-I didn't quite make it to an astronaut. But I've always dreamed about working with the space program. I happened into this, met the right people at the right time, while I was in school, got in. But anybody can do this job. We are not superhumans. Basically, we went to school and we applied and we got here. You've got to decide that's what you want to do. This is not like any other job out there. You know, how many people get the opportunity to build a spacecraft that's gonna actually go to another planet and then drive around on the planet? In fact, one of the things I like to talk about is, what would you do to have somebody pay you to drive an RC (remote control) vehicle on Mars, because that's essentially what we get to do. We get to design it, we get to build it, we get to test it, take it out and put it on the rocket and see it go to Mars. And then see those pictures come back as we're actually driving this thing around on Mars. There's nothing like this, nothing like this.

P2K: Lots of the people around you are clearly incredibly talented at math and science and it all came natural. Is that the only kind of person who can have a job in the space biz?

Art Thompson: Absolutely not. We need all different types. We have Ph.D's that have their degree in ancient Italian literature. Basically you just have to have the desire to do something like this, and the drive. You can do it if that's what you want, you don't have to be a math major or a scientist to do this.

P2K: "Thrill" and "terror." Do you describe that as... any other aspects of this enterprise?

Art Thompson: Well, it truly is a roller coaster. Very, very seldom are we on an even keel. We're sitting in ATLO. When you start, you're dreaming about what's going to happen when you get the part, so you're trying to put together the picture, the plan, the procedures. In a way it's a little mundane. You can hardly wait for the starting gun to go off, the bell to ring, the hardware to come in.

Then the hardware comes in, and right away you're under the gun, you're under pressure to get this thing working. So you've got to go from basically zero to a hundred miles per hour almost instantaneously. Then you hit a snag and you come to a screeching halt waiting for a solution, or waiting for more hardware. You encounter a problem, your emotions go way down and you take every problem personally. It's truly amazing to see when an event will occur, even though there's no blame put, you can see people stand up and take the blame internally, and you can tell it's just eating them up. Then the solution comes for it, and you can tell that we're back on track and we're making up time, and your emotions, the adrenaline kicks in, the emotions are high again, and it's truly a roller coaster ride, all the way. Never does it even out.

In fact, a couple weeks ago, when we thought we were on our glide slope into launch, that's when we had maybe one of our most severe hits, and our emotions have been down pretty low for a couple of weeks. But they're coming back up and we're getting back to that launch pad and launch.

P2K: Last question. You've been testing, you've been testing, you've been testing. What's going to be different on the "day of..."? How's your job going to feel different on that day?

Art Thompson: I truly believe it will be like no other day we've worked on. The only other day you might be able to compare this to would be when we actually land on Mars.

We launch at about 2:16 in the afternoon, but we'll be coming in, turning lights on, at about 5:30 in the morning. We'll be powering on the spacecraft knowing that this is the last time we get to talk to her on Earth. We're going to be doing things very slowly and deliberately. We've been going through our countdown and launch practices now for a couple of weeks, although we've been working on the procedures for probably ten months. We have a few more countdown practices to go, but I imagine that the nine hours that we'll be operating the spacecraft up until the time we light the candle, the intensity will just be ratcheting up minute by minute. And by the time we get down to the last, say, sixty minutes, it's going to be excruciatingly painful watching that clock tick, double checking all of the telemetry, making sure that we've got the spacecraft in the exact configuration that we need to.

The last two commands to switch to internal power and finally arm the pyro bus for the last time, and validating that she's armed and ready to go, that will be very intense. They'll be a lot of nervous people here. Very excited people.

P2K: What keeps you going?

Art Thompson: Well, a good part of this job, what I really like about it, is that at the end of the day or at the end of my career I can look back and say, I did something that affected history. You look back, and you watch the History Channel and you see major events of the last century and they show pictures of Pathfinder. That gives you a really good feeling, to know that you were an integral part of making that happen.

Also, one of the things that I found truly amazing, I really appreciated the magnitude of what I was doing on Mars Pathfinder... At the time, my kids - I had a daughter who was seven and my son was ten - and they appreciated the fact that I worked for NASA but really didn't understand the scope of it. Well, just before Mars Pathfinder launched, "Nickelodeon News" did a half-hour special on Mars Pathfinder and my kids saw that and then they came to me and said, "Dad, aren't you working on that?" Man, that's something special. And to actually see the future generations getting really excited about this, something we're working on, that makes it worthwhile, really worthwhile.

P2K: Since the beginning of this project you've had "9/11," you've had the war against Iraq, you've had a lot of world history. Do you think there's any reason to believe that the exploration of Mars is going to be up there, looking back from centuries from now?

Art Thompson: Oh, I think so. I think that we're opening up new domains in science, new borders. We're expanding our knowledge and I can only hope that we're building on what we're doing now, that in some ways we're discovering the lands that we'll move out to, not just robots but eventually to have humans on Mars, our sister planet-there's no reason not to go there, if we decide we want to go there we should. And the work we're doing now is laying the foundation for expanding out to other planets.