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To MARS with MER - MER the Mission

Miguel San Martin
Mars Exploration Rovers Lead Software Designer
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

"February 26, 2002"

P2K: Just how complex is NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers project compared to Pathfinder?

Miguel San Martin: Well, it depends on what phase of the mission we are talking about. The cruise stage is actually very similar to Pathfinder from a technical point of view. We have some new challenges that we didn't have in Pathfinder, but all in all it's about the same. EDL is really more complex here, in parts because, in the Mars Exploration Rovers mission it's more complex, because we know more than we did in Pathfinder ...(we're) more aware of the weaknesses of the systems and we have come up with ways of compensating for those weaknesses by making modifications to the system that makes EDL a little bit more complex.

And then the surface (phase) is very different. The surface is much more complex than Mars Pathfinder because of the complexity of the rover and its functions and the number of scientific instruments. The surface part of the mission is and are where I don't concentrate as much, but I think if you ask most Mars Exploration Rovers engineers they will tell you that perhaps the surface mission is the biggest difference.

P2K: What is it that gets you charged, that gets you excited when you come into work in the morning to do the next day's hard work?

Miguel San Martin: Well, we love this stuff. Sometimes we complain when we have deadlines, and tough schedules, but really, for most of us, this is almost a religious experience, I have to say. We wouldn't be here otherwise. Most of us are passionate about this since we were kids, and it's a dream for us to be able to work. We feel privileged, actually, to be part of this mission. And when we're going through these difficult times we just think about the day that we actually get to fly this thing, and come EDL and I get that first picture of Mars, even though, at most... I mean, there are so many people that work on this thing that when you get that first picture you can only claim a small part, very few pixels of that picture you can claim credit for. Still, it makes it all worthwhile because we are all part of a team, and just being able to say that you made this small contribution in this big endeavor, still, it's a great thrill for all of us.

P2K: The meeting we were sitting in on this morning had some mind-numbingly complicated issues being discussed. Do you feel that everybody is in control of the mission or is it just so complicated that it's hard to keep up with what's going on?

Miguel San Martin: No, I think that we are in control. I mean, we dissect it into small pieces and that's how we can deal with them, one at a time, but we do place deadlines for each one of those issues to get them resolved, so we just don't go around and around. So we've been doing that right from the beginning and I think you just experience us going through one of those issues, but we should take action on it and close it, relatively soon, and move onto the next issue.

P2K: Is it as much fun working on NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers project as it was to work on Pathfinder?

Miguel San Martin: It's a lot of fun. Y'know... comparisons are always difficult. It's a different flavor. There are some new pressures that we have in this mission because of the past failures, that make it a little bit sometimes less than enjoyable. But from the challenge I still think it's as enjoyable as Pathfinder. Just landing on Mars is just a wonderful thing. We just enjoy doing it. The challenge is there. I think this is a hard challenge but it's a fair challenge, and ones that we all enjoy trying to meet; it was the same way in Pathfinder.

P2K: Your interest in Mars goes back a pretty long way. How did you get started in the space business?

Miguel San Martin: Well, I kind of grew up during the time that, a little late in the time where the space program of the United States was in full (flower). I followed the Apollo project pretty closely, and then the Viking missions, actually, I followed also very closely.

Since I grew up I have always had an interest in space, like most of my colleagues here. I mean, it's this pretty constant thing that you will find here, that it started very early.

P2K: And you weren't in the United States when you started getting interested in Mars. Tell us where you came from and what you knew about Mars down in your home country.

Miguel San Martin: I grew up in Argentina and... I actually remember seeing these rockets take off and asking my father where we could see one of these take off. And when he told me, well, they're not happening in our country, I was a little bit disappointed. I mean, I was that young when I took notice of this. I didn't realize that the "U.S.A. label" meant another country. But you know that's how it started. I kept following it. I was also interested on the manned side, but the unmanned side also had tremendous fascination for me.

P2K: The Mars Exploration Rovers mission is a pretty huge project in terms of the number of people working on. Does having so many people on it make it that much easier than Pathfinder?

Miguel San Martin: Not necessarily. It depends on what areas. We do need more people, obviously, than in Pathfinder, because this is a much more complex mission. But it depends. I mean, you need a right number of people to do a particular job. Too many, or too few, is the wrong thing. And I feel maybe in some areas we are too many people, and maybe in some other areas we are too few.

In my particular area, because of the large inheritance that we get from Pathfinder, for example, in the cruise phase, we are a small team. So it's not the constant control effort, especially the software side is not that much bigger than it was in Pathfinder.

I personally like it that way because it allows you essentially to be more involved in the technical issues as opposed to having a huge team, and eventually you drop out of the technical issues and you concentrate on programmatics only.

P2K: What do you mean there's a problem in having too many people? What's the downside of having too many people working on something?

Miguel San Martin: There's a tendency for "compartmentalization," like where you finish a product and because there are other people there demanding the results, or ready for the next step, and you just pass it to them over the fence and then you just go work on something else. And when you have a smaller team you are more encouraged to follow your product through the system, and that's what we did in Pathfinder. The people, for example, on my team that designed the guidance and control software, and then tested it, and then wrote the tools to operate it during operations, and actually they didn't operate it, they are software doing operations. So that approach... it required fewer people and required people to be engaged and understand all the phases of the development of the spacecraft, as opposed to when you have a large team and you say, well, these are only the designers of the software and these are only the testers and these are the operators. When you do that you don't get the satisfaction, for example, of seeing your product being operated in the mission. That's one disadvantage. But the other one is that every time you have one of these compartments there is a chance that communication between people in this compartment is broken down and errors are introduced.

P2K: One of the things people say they're trying to use to get around that, to make sure that everybody talks to everybody else, is to have lots of reviews and lots of meetings and lots of memos. Is that working well, as far as you can see?

Miguel San Martin: I think again, there's always the right amount of everything. It sounds like it's skipping the question, but... I think that some of the reviews that we've been having are, for example, in the area of EDL, have been very useful to us because they're the type of reviews where they're very technical. They are not just a "push up," just to say we had a review. We get a lot of input. Actually, in trying to explain to a very able review board, trying just to explain to them that we know what we're doing is a great exercise for us, because sometimes we find out that we don't have a clear story, and that forces us to go back and understand the problem better. So I've been very pleased by how some of the reviews have actually been very positive for us. But there are other reviews that are more formal, but you need to do it, not because we feel that we need to from a reliability point of view, but it's more of a formality. So it's a mixed bag. But the ones that take the most amount of work are the ones - fortunately, the ones that take the most amount of work are the ones that are really needed.

P2K: Just how complicated is the kind of software that you're developing and testing in comparison to the software that runs business structures out in the world? Is it complexity?

Miguel San Martin: The physics and the mathematics that we use are actually on the... simple, they are not that incredibly complex, at least what we use onboard the spacecraft. But what makes it complex is the amount - I mean, we have a lot of little technical problems to solve, but just the sheer number of them adds complexity to the full picture. But, on top of that, the thing that adds complexity is the fact that it has got to work the first time. We don't get to take a ride on this spacecraft before we actually use it for the first time. I mean, we do do tests on the ground but they are all simulations, they never really amount to the real thing. So the real, very first test is when we actually fly it in space, and if we make a mistake we can lose the mission. So that's what adds complexities. You need to anticipate every single problem that you are going to have and solve it.

If you are doing engineering on the ground, like developing a new car, for example, you can always test it for a ride, and some people actually take their cars and give it to their friends and relatives to drive, and if they experience a problem you can fix it. But the car was tested in the same environment that actually the users are going to be testing it, using it.

But we don't have that luxury in the space business. We need to anticipate all the problems and we don't necessarily get a second chance. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. It's three years or however many year and millions of dollars lost. So that, the validation process, the anticipating... what are the issues that are relevant to the problem and what are not as relevant, is what makes the space business so difficult.

P2K: Looking back on Pathfinder, what was the peak moment for you? What made you say, that's it, that's why I'm in this business?

Miguel San Martin: Well, there were many. There were many. Of course, the EDL landing was the absolute peak. I was in the control room and it was a magical moment. I mean, it was sheer panic and then at the same time tremendous happiness when everything worked. Another moment, perhaps, that people have not noticed as much was the first time that we got the first communication from the high-gain antenna, which requires some software, some tricks that... we didn't know that it was going to work that well, and it did, and when we got that large signal from Mars and then that enabled to get all the pictures, that was also a lot of fun to see that work after we tested and rehearsed it so much, the whole team. So those are the two most fun that I remember, but I mean I just enjoyed just going to the test bed and just being part of the team. That was always a lot of fun.

P2K: I don't mean to insult you, but you're a pretty bright guy. You could probably write your own ticket anywhere out in the software world, and could have gone off and made a bundle in the dot-com boom of a few years back, and yet here you are building spacecraft. What is the kick that you personally get out of helping to make space missions like this work?

Miguel San Martin: First of all, I kind of question that first statement, that because we are smart building spacecraft we are going to be smart making money somewhere else. I don't necessarily agree with that; at least, I don't think that I can apply my strengths that I have here at JPL somewhere else. But even if I could, I think that I'm no different from anyone else here at JPL. We are essentially, we just love this stuff. As I said, we like doing this stuff. Maybe we are kind of romantics or something, and we grew up following the space program and we enjoy it, I guess, like a whole bunch of other professions where there is no tremendous material rewards associated with them, and we are not the only one.