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To MARS with MER - MER the Mission

Steve Squyres
ATHENA Science Team Leader
Cornell University

"March 1, 2002" (The actual first day of ATLO)

P2K: What's the big deal about ATLO (Assembly, Test and Launch Operations)?

Steve Squyres: It's when we start putting stuff together. ATLO is the process of bolting stuff together, testing it out, and shooting it off, so it's something I've waited a long time for. I mean, we were working on this thing for, like, six years, and finally we're actually starting to do it.

P2K: Does it matter that the official start date of ATLO was February 25th, and actually hardware won't start rolling in until March 4th at the earliest?

Steve Squyres: The official date doesn't matter to me, one week or the other, one way or the other. The point is we're starting to build stuff. And, you know, the time has come.

P2K: How is the mission doing in terms of its battle against the three things that you told us about to begin with: schedule, mass, and budget?

Steve Squyres: We're tight on all three. We're tight on schedule, we're tight on mass, we're tight on budget - we're going to be right to the very end. I mean, there's no question about it. The schedule's the toughest because the schedule is relentless and the schedule is something you can't do anything about. We've got to launch when we've got to launch and that's all there is to it. Budget's awfully tight. I mean, we're right up against it, all the way across the board. We're going to be that way, that's just the nature of this project.

P2K: This is the first time I've been around the lander when people have been talking about "descoping," losing a test module here, losing something there. Is budget now a bigger deal than it was before? Is there something imminent about to happen in terms of budget problems?

Steve Squyres: I don't think budget's a bigger deal than it was before. I think maybe our realization about what the budget is is greater than it was before. We are going through this "descoping" process, and essentially what it means is trimming away the stuff that we don't absolutely need and focusing on the stuff that we really, really, most have to have. It's a painful process, it takes up time, it takes energy, but given where we are it's necessary.

P2K: Let's talk about the "programmatic" aspect of making something like the Mars Exploration Rovers mission move forward. Pete (Theisinger, Project Manager) describes one of his roles as being like a membrane, to keep a lot of pressures off the mission. To what extent are ISS budget overruns, to what extent is restructuring of the Mars program, something that worries you about how far and how fast the mission is going to be able to move forward at this point?

Steve Squyres: Yeah, there are these protective membranes at all levels in the system. I am not worried that Space Station overruns are going to have a negative impact on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. There are processes in place that protect a project like the Mars Exploration Rovers mission from overruns that are a completely different area. But, yeah, Pete has to worry about protecting the project from outside pressure. I have to worry about protecting my part of the project, the science, from outside pressure, or pressure elsewhere on the project. All of us are in roles where we kind of have to protect the people whom we interact with from those kinds of outside pressures, because you can't deal with too many outside distractions. You can't deal with too much outside pressure, because the internal pressure of just trying to make this whole project work is bad enough as it is.

P2K: Gentry (Lee, a veteran of the successful Viking missions of 1976) says he's rarely seen a scientist, if ever, who's been so deeply involved in the engineering of a mission. Why are you so bound up in understanding what the engineers are doing as opposed to just worrying about the science?

Steve Squyres: I think this project is different from many other projects in that you can't separate the instruments from the spacecraft nearly as much as is typical of JPL projects in the past. The way I look at it, my science instrument is that whole rover, OK, because the rover is a robotic field geologist, it works as an ensemble, it works as a set of tools together, and you can't just pull one piece out and consider it in isolation. The whole thing has to work together as an integrated whole, and how well one of my instruments, the mini-TES works, is going to depend on how big the solar arrays are. Okay, how well I'm going to get Mossbauer data from one of my spectrometers is going to depend on how good the thermal system is. And it's all so tied up together that if you just focus on your little part of the puzzle and you ignore the rest of it, the overall science quality is going to suffer. And it's just because this thing is so integrated.

P2K: Your time out here is two days this time. How many different meetings about how many different topics have you managed to cram into two days?

Steve Squyres: In the last forty-eight hours? Hard to tell you exactly. I would say roughly ten or twelve meetings on ten or twelve different topics in the last twenty-four hours - forty-eight hours.

P2K: And as of March 1st, 2002, how do you assess the mission, how's it going?

Steve Squyres: It's exhilarating. It's frightening. We're going to make it. We're definitely going to make it. It's the toughest thing I've ever been a part of. It's more work, it's more challenge, it's more frightening, it's more exciting, it's more rewarding than anything I've ever done in my life. We're doing OK. We're doing well enough that we're going to produce a mission that we're going to be proud of and that other people are going to be proud of, too. But, boy, it's hard. It's just really hard.

P2K: Jim Martin (the legendary Project Manager of Viking) had a "Top Ten" worries list. Do you have a Top Ten worries list, or a Top Three worries list that you know you have to speak up when you hear the mission doing something, and what are those top five, top three things that you have to chip in to make it move?

Steve Squyres: I always had a top ten worries list. I've maintained that from the start of the project. It's not always ten; sometimes it's eight, sometimes it's twelve. You know, the reason that it's about ten is because that's the limit to how many I can keep in my head at any one given time. It changes. It changes from time to time.

Number one on my worry list right now is the flight software. It's the software that runs on the rover that's going to, when we're on Mars, make it do the stuff that we need it to do: navigate accurately, when something happens make intelligent decisions on the rover as to what should happen. That software, having it ready, having it available on time, is my single biggest concern right now. I've got others: making sure all my instruments get calibrated. I've got ten different instruments, five on each rover. They all have to be exquisitely calibrated, and making sure there's enough time in the schedule for that. And it always comes back to schedule. The schedule's our toughest problem. But yeah, I've got a top ten worries list, and I update it daily.

P2K: What do you want to see go right in the next two months to be convinced that it's moving forward at the pace that you want to see, and the direction that you want to see?

Steve Squyres: I think the thing I most want to see in the next couple of months is some of the key hardware deliveries come in on time. We've got our ATLO schedule put together, it's got some margin in it, it doesn't have as much margin as anybody wants, but it's okay. But it's critically dependent on key deliveries showing up on time. We've had some tough delays in a few areas, we've had some delays with motors, we've had some delays with some electronics. We can only take so much of that sort of thing before things are going to start getting unacceptably tight. So seeing some of the key deliveries bang, bang, bang, come in on schedule is key right now.

P2K: The solar panel manufacturer went bankrupt. The mortar under-performs. Is this normal? Is this standard operating procedure, or is this something that's out of left field?

Steve Squyres: I have never been involved in a project where stuff like this didn't happen. This is stuff that nobody sees. You know, when the lander lands and the rover drives around and everything's a great success, it all looks like it was perfectly planned and perfectly executed, and the perfection at the end masks all the turmoil that invariably precedes it. So, yeah, every project I've ever seen, close up or from a distance, has gone through this kind of stuff. And we're going through our stuff. You plan for it, you anticipate it, and you build a schedule that's got enough slip, enough pad in it that you can deal with it. That's the only way to handle it.

P2K: Pete (Theisinger) has a set of ten rules that he quotes from time to time... Do you have any things that you live by when things look dim?

Steve Squyres: Yeah. "If it were easy everybody would be doing it." We do this stuff because it's hard to do. And you have to expect it to be hard. We chose this path because it was a difficult one. So you just roll with it.

Absolutely the adventure of a lifetime. That's the best phrase I can think of to describe it.

P2K: It started as one rover, then it became two rovers overnight. If it went back to one rover, is that something that you'd be sad about?

Steve Squyres: Oh yeah. If it went back to one I'd be sad about it. I've gotten very attached to the idea of having two. It gives us redundancy, it gives us a more robust mission, it gives us two missions. I mean, we're going to go to two very different places and it doubles the science. So, yeah, I'm very much attached to the idea of flying two rovers. We're going to fly two rovers. I'm convinced of it and I'm determined to do it.