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To MARS with MER - MER the Mission

Joy Crisp
Mars Exploration Rovers Project Scientist
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

"September 26, 2001"

P2K: How did this mission all get started?

Joy Crisp: Well, it got started when we were looking at the '01 lander and whether we should fly that, or fly a different kind of mission, like an orbiter mission, and other proto-projects were proposing to replace that '01 landing mission with their own mission. And half a dozen of us got together one day to have a little brainstorming meeting and discussed the idea of taking the ATHENA rover and fitting it into the Pathfinder lander system and flying that to Mars. So we had a very small group and we did back-of-the-envelope calculations to see if we thought this could fit, and whether the budget would fit in the available funds. So that was the beginning of the concept, which looked doable at that point, you know, just very initial phase study. Well, we went on and there were some reviews that Headquarters was holding to decide what to do about the '01 lander. One of them was looking at what parts of the payload they could still include on the '01 lander and when that was over with - I was there for this review, on the review board - and at the end of the review I said, would you be interested in looking at a few slides of this other concept. And they said, "Oh, okay, sure, we'll look at them." And we went through the package for this concept of an ATHENA rover in a Pathfinder system. And they were intrigued.

Then there were more official reviews that were going to be held where they were going to look much more seriously at other concepts that had been given more money to do their studies and we managed to squeeze into that review as well, and came out of that review with great reviews. They said, "That looks really good to do and worth doing." So then we went head to head with this orbiter competition to see which of these studies could look more promising in terms of risk, cost, what science return you could get from them. And we presented to Headquarters these two competing projects and the opportunity in 2003 is so much better for return of the number of bits of data you can get back in the '03 timeframe because of where Mars and the Earth is at that time, and it really struck them that it was important to do this landed mission in '03 to be able to get back the important science return, and if we had flown this in '05 that there would have been a reduction in that. So they decided to go ahead and approve us to move forward with the project, despite the fact that we had started fairly late. So this was going to be a big challenge to make this fit in the schedule that we had. The orbiter was selected to follow us, so that's the '05 orbiter that they selected. It was really the timing that cinched it for us, I think.

P2K: What was it that made you excited about putting this new lander inside the Pathfinder system? What was it like when you came up with that idea?

Joy Crisp: It was really exciting to me because this was instead of doing the '01 lander mission, which had the reflight of Sojourner, so a very tiny rover, the same model, it was the flight spare, and we know that that rover only lasts so long and can only go so far - it can only go about a hundred meters. This ATHENA rover can go up to a kilometer, so, (speaking) as a geologist, this is much better, you probably get to more different types of rocks and really do some good geology with this big a rover, with instruments that were more sophisticated on it. So from a field geology perspective, this ATHENA mission was much more exciting to me. It was also in contrast to a Mars sample return mission that I had been working on, which, as we got into the Mars sample return project, it became more and more evident that returning a sample from Mars was very difficult. There are issues with planetary protection, making sure the spacecraft is clean so that you don't go to Mars and then say we've discovered life on Mars, and that life was the dirt and crud that you didn't clean off completely from your own drills and equipment that you brought to Mars! And then the concern of making sure the sample, when it was returned to Earth, would not crack open, and it would be safe and contained, and that you had to work out how you were going to open that in a safe facility. So the ATHENA mission in a Pathfinder lander seemed much more doable. It seemed like we can do this, whereas the other mission always seemed very difficult, extremely difficult. So to me that was really, to say, "Hmm, here's something we can do and it's more exciting than the other opportunities." For me it's more exciting than an orbiter mission, although we need alternating types of missions.

P2K: There's a Chinese saying: be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. How do you feel now that your wish is there and you're on the mission?

Joy Crisp: That's very true, and sometimes the few of us that started at the beginning of the project look at each other and say, "what did we do, why did we do this?" And you say that, but you kind of say it in jest because you like the project. I'm really glad that this got going. It's quite a challenge, it's more of a challenge than I thought at the beginning. It's pretty amazing how hard it is to fit in the schedule, and all the constraints that we have. We thought we had more heritage when we started, in terms of we're reusing the Pathfinder landing system. It turned out the devil's in the details. As we worked the design of the rover it became more and more apparent that this thing was hard to fit in there, and we had to make changes along the way to the Pathfinder landing system. And that's what made it more and more difficult: what we had assumed at the beginning in our initial quick studies just didn't hold up. So we had to do more redesigns along the way.

P2K: Where do we stand today? Tell me where we are today, how many days there are left, how do you situate yourself in terms of how far you've come and how far you have to get to?

Joy Crisp: Well, we are nineteen weeks from ATLO, and that acronym is "Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations." The critical word there is "assembly." They're putting together all the pieces of the spacecraft. To us this has been the date that we've all been holding our breaths for, so that's February 4, 2002. If that date slips at all, that's going to be an incredible strain in being able to build this and get it off the launch pad and also a strain on being able to train everybody how to operate the rover. (Ed. In fact, ATLO slipped back to Feb. 25, and then to March 1.) So we've all been looking toward that date, trying to hold that date as the date when we start assembling everything. The next big dates after that are launch. So launch from Kennedy and Florida and that is in June and July of '03. It may sound like a long time to you, it sounds really close to us. We're still in the end of the design phase. They've started building some parts, but some other parts are still being designed, they're polishing off the design. So that's not very long to have to have something ready for launch. And then landing, that's January of '04. That seems longer off to me right now.

P2K: When you got up this morning, what did you say, "I have to do this today to make the mission come to be on time?" Do you sort of wake up and have a list of things in your mind, a checklist? Do you have a computer file that says "Do this, do this, do this"? How do you go about scheduling yourself?

Joy Crisp: Well, there's a software tool that we have at JPL called "Meeting Maker." And "Meeting Maker" is something that most people when they first hear of it don't want to use it. But then once you start using it, if you work on a project like this, you are addicted to it. It brings up a calendar showing you the month, and then each day it shows you all the meetings you have to go to, where they are, what times, and it has a system so people can ask you to join a meeting, they can change the location, so every morning you check that and see which meetings are still on, where am I supposed to go. So I have this interview on the calendar for today, then I have a landing site strategy group meeting, and I think that's it for today, which is a real surprise. Usually my day is pretty full of meetings.

P2K: What has to go right between now and February for ATLO to be on schedule?

Joy Crisp: For ATLO to be on schedule, deliveries have to come in. So all these things that we ordered, parts and assemblies where parts have been put together, we have a very complicated schedule, and things have to come into the test bed. That includes software deliveries and hardware deliveries. That's the key.

P2K: You were beginning to talk about how NASA Headquarters said, "That's a neat idea. If you could do one, can you do two?" How did that whole discussion come up? Where did that idea come from?

Joy Crisp: We're not exactly sure where... The idea came from Headquarters, we're not sure how in Headquarters that actually arose. But we got the message from Headquarters in August of 2000 asking us could we provide two rovers instead of one, and they gave us two weeks to answer that question. My reaction at the time was fear, because I think coming off the Mars sample return mission, to me one of the big pluses was that the one rover, this concept was very doable. I didn't want to get in over my head again, I wanted something that we could really do, and it would feel like it would fit in the schedule, budget, etc. And it already seemed challenging, so two sounded like a lot of scary trouble.

I think for me the scariest part is that you're running operations. When the first one lands it would be on the surface for a few days and you'd operate a few weeks, and then the second one would land, and you'd be operating two rovers at the same time for quite a while. And that's a challenge, the challenge of having two science teams, the facilities for all of this, and figuring out how the processes will work so that what you learn from one rover gets transmitted to the other team, back and forth. So it's a different kind of challenge than the challenge of building them, that the engineers have in getting the two to the launch pad. But I was one of the more fearful persons in that I was, my preference was for one rover, but most of the people on the project wanted to do two. Now that we have two I really want two. That means we can go to two sites, two different places, and learn a lot more than if we had just sent one. So that's...

P2K: What was your biggest argument about why having one was a better bet than having two? What was the main thing that you were worried about by going for two?

Joy Crisp: I think just schedule. That there would be so much more to plan and worry about with two rovers, making sure that it would fit and be a job that the scope could be handled.

P2K: Did you get twice as much money to do two rovers?

Joy Crisp: No. There's a lot of overlap, so. One of the big costs is the design of the rover. Of course you don't design one and then throw all your drawings away, and start designing the second one, so it wasn't quite double. There's a cost savings. And I think that was part of the reason Headquarters was interested in two as well.

P2K: Missions have personalities. Pathfinder was sort of smaller, cheaper, faster, in terms of the number of people on it, and it was a very intense experience with a limited number of people. NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers project is twice as large in terms of people, three times as large in terms of people?

Joy Crisp: Probably four times as large. What we have is kind of a cadre in the upper management level, and it doesn't have the same feel as Pathfinder. Also, because of the Mars failures of the Polar Lander and the (Mars Climate) Orbiter, there's a lot more carefulness, scrutiny, documentation that we did not have on Pathfinder. We have 22 gigabytes of files in our electronic library and this is part of this new era of documenting everything, taking more care - it's called "configuration management," where you take great care in the document revisions and everything is official. So there's a level of formality in this project that we didn't have on Pathfinder.

P2K: Is that personally less satisfying to you? More satisfying?

Joy Crisp: It's different. It's good in a way, because in a project this complex I need to be able to track what's going on, so the documents are there, if I can find them. That's part of the challenge. But on Pathfinder not so much was written down, it was in people's heads some of the time. They didn't think it through as carefully, they didn't plan as carefully. So here there's a benefit to this documentation which is that we will have thought through how we're going to do operations, for instance, much more than we did on Pathfinder. On Pathfinder we just kind of did it. So the bad thing is it's onerous to have to document all this stuff, so there's good and bad.

P2K: How much more challenging is this than Pathfinder? How much more complex or ambitious is this than Pathfinder:

Joy Crisp: I'd say an order of magnitude. It's a big step, and...

P2K: In the middle of the night when you wake up and worry, what do you worry about most?

Joy Crisp: General worry, are we going to make it, you know, are we going to fit in all our constraints? Schedule is always our number one, number two, and number three concern, then we have cost, and mass is another one. So all of these are challenges to make everything fit.

P2K: You're the Project Scientist, so your ambition is to figure out what places to go, what kinds of rocks to bring back to answer what kinds of questions about Mars, and yet you have to get involved in the nitty-gritty details of everything else. How's it feel as a scientist, as a geologist, having to worry about spacecraft design and bending metal? How do you factor those two things together to still do your job?

Joy Crisp: I like it, actually. I like getting into the details of how things work and keeping track of all these different aspects and trying to maximize the science. I think over the years, having worked on projects, I've adapted to understanding these other areas. Basically the scientists that are here at JPL serve a function which is just to immerse ourselves in these other areas, and to translate to our colleagues who will be working on this project who aren't here, who are at universities, and explain to them how things work, and we can explain it in a way they'll understand, and watch out for things with an eye for design trades, and things that might affect the science return.

P2K: What is the science gain that, if successful, the Mars Exploration Rovers mission could most uniquely contribute to our understanding about Mars? Looking at it from this far out in terms of still having to select, tell us about the site selection process that's still ongoing...what is it that the rovers can tell us that we need to know about Mars?

Joy Crisp: Mineralogy. What minerals are present in the soils and rocks, and putting that in a geologic context. Right now we have meteorites from Mars, but we don't know where they're from. We have no context. We don't have any soil samples from Mars and we have been unsuccessful in the past in unambiguously identifying what minerals are present. And getting at what minerals are present and the geologic context - and by that I mean what geomorphologic features are there, clues to how the rocks formed and soils formed - that's going to tell us what processes occurred, and we're aiming at trying to learn more about the water processes on Mars and whether the environment was conducive for life, or it was very harsh for life. It should make a big contribution.

P2K: On board Beagle (the European Space Agency spacecraft now also en route to Mars - as of summer 2003) there's an exobiology experiment. There are no exobiology experiments on the rovers. Did you guys think about putting a "exobiology" instrument on?

Joy Crisp: No. At the time we had to go with things that were already set to go, things that were ready to fly because of the schedule crunch. When you do that you look around, there wasn't much, and the instruments that came with the ATHENA package had been selected through a peer review, and that was already a blessing from Headquarters that these instruments were worthy of flying and had gone through a competitive process. So for us to have selected other types of instruments would have taken more time, which we didn't have, to go through another competitive process to select those. So that will have to wait for future missions.

P2K: How many compromises do you think you had to make on the way through?

Joy Crisp: Probably hundreds of thousands every day, every minute. There's a continual process of working through to maximize the science within the constraints, and there are many, many constraints. Time, as I mentioned, again is always our biggest constraint. Well, sometimes there's not enough time to make something better. So we started out defining requirements, and defining a set of about fifteen hundred high level requirements that would, we think, if they meet these requirements we will be able to accomplish our science objectives. So it's a continual process of looking at design, as the design evolves, making sure it meets the requirements and where possible making it better, but only if we're in our constraints of cost and time.

P2K: (Some people have said) ...The people are just as important as the hardware. What has to go right for a mission to be clicking along on all cylinders in terms of the people doing all the things they need to do?

Joy Crisp: The people are very important. The first thing stepping into this role that I found I had not done before was any people management. So, we have a very small science office, but that was a first challenge - making sure everyone is motivated and that they understand their role in the project. This, for the Flight system and Mission system, is a much larger problem, so making sure that morale is good, that people know what they're supposed to do, and they can come to you with their problems and that you're there to help them when they get stuck, that that's key. So, it's because we have so many people, I think it's a bigger problem.

P2K: You mentioned the extra paperwork that came after the recent failures. How has that translated into extra pressures of being particularly worried about things, really focusing on single point failures?

Joy Crisp: Oh, it's a big deal on this project. We have a huge mission assurance staff; a large percent of our time in reviews is spent going over their oversight of what we're doing. We've had reviews with the Tom Young committee, going back to them. Our Project Manager has gone and made presentations saying, "Here's how we're doing this, we have taken into account your recommendations and we've made these changes," and they have blessed our approach. So that was very intense scrutiny at that level.

P2K: Do you find that some people are responding by getting so compulsive about thing that it's slowing things down, or is everybody internalizing it and still charging forward?

Joy Crisp: No, there probably is some over-care in the project, and part of the challenge for the managers is to make sure that the right level of care is communicated. That's difficult. Sometimes it just comes down to when you get a product or a document and you assume that it's gone a little beyond what was necessary you have to pull them back and say "Next time you can write that on one page instead of ten pages," or something to that effect. But in general I think it's at the right level. It's just a lot more watching and care and worry about the quality of all the parts, things like that.

P2K: Do you know what your two favorite landing sites are, or is the process...?

Joy Crisp: What my favorite sites are is what the science community wants, so even though I have my own personal favorites, they're all good. I really do want what the science community wants because I want their backing of this mission. So we're going to have this open workshop coming up. (The second site selection workshop is seen in BOUNCING TO MARS.) We already had one where we narrowed down (the initial list.) And we're having another site workshop in October, and there we are getting input from the community. I think the favorites that I have are really because they rose to the top of the list last time, but right now we're still in the middle of assessing site safety, and this is really number one. So even though I have favorite sites, if either of those or the community's favorite sites turn out to be unsafe, they will no longer be favorites. We have to land safely. So, that's a big factor in all this.

P2K: As you look at this big train lumbering down the track and you think about all the people around the world and certainly across the States working on this, it all comes back to those six folks in a room saying, "Hey, why don't we do this?" How do you feel?

Joy Crisp: It's kind of amazing. That's a strange way for a project to begin. I think it's unusual for it to begin in that kind of a way, and it's exciting to have been there at the beginning and see it start.

P2K: With the pressures of time, budget, safety committees over your shoulder, does this feel like fun or is it hard work?

Joy Crisp: Both. Both. Very, very challenging, but fun.