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To MARS with MER - MER the Mission

Tom Shain
ATLO Logistics Manager
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover project
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Interviewed at Cape Canaveral/KSC, May 2003

P2K: So, Tom, here we are at the Cape. What does this say about the stage of the mission we're at?

Tom Shain: Well, right now we know that we're just a matter of days from bringing our spacecraft out next Tuesday, and we'll be going on top of the (Delta II rocket) you see directly behind me. The closest one is pad 17A. And hopefully if all goes well at this stage we're probably going to launch on June 8 - a little change in plan - and then we'll be prepping our second spacecraft to move out, oh, about two weeks later, for a June 25 launch date. It could possibly slip to the right also, because of ours moving to the 8th. (Ed. "slip to the right" meaning "be delayed.") There's about a ten to twelve day period between the time when we have the first spacecraft on the launch pad, and when we can move the second one out. So we're really getting there, it's just actually hard to believe that we're this close. It's sort of funny: about a month ago I was talking to an Air Force crowd back at PHSF and we happened to mention the date, and I said, my god, we're one month away, and it gives you a funny feeling knowing that we've been working this hard for two years, two and a half years, and all of a sudden here it is, it's quickly approaching. But it's been quite a challenge, it has definitely been a challenging program.

P2K: You've seen a bunch of these missions go through. How do people change their approach to things when they get down to the Cape, finally?

Tom Shain: Well, everyone, all the things that I've worked on, as I told you before, this is my nineteenth mission that I've worked on, sixteenth out of Kennedy, one out of French Guiana, two out of Vanderberg. Well, of course, everyone's always excited to get to the launch area to do this. A lot of the people have never been before so it's a great experience for them. And even though I've been here many, many times, still, coming down here is just a super experience, to see all of this, knowing that you're really being part of history.

But their attitudes, they're quite excited. I think by the time we're leaving Pasadena it's a good time to leave and come down here because everybody seems to gain a new attitude and alertness and they seem to be fresh again when they come down here and start over. Because it's exciting to live here on the beach and to see all this stuff. I try to tour as many of the guys around as I can, to show them some of the sites here at Canaveral and Kennedy. Again, that creates more excitement, knowing the history that's happened around this place over the years and just being part of the course.

P2K: How does the Mars Exploration Rovers mission compare in complexity and challenge to some of the other missions that you've worked on?

Tom Shain: I would say that this Mars Exploration Rovers program is probably the most challenging that we've done, part of it being the fact that it was a rather short time involved - when we started initially building this up back at SAF just a little over a year ago and being here at this stage of the game, it's a very complex spacecraft.

It started out with a lot of heritage from the Mars Pathfinder program, and they still have a lot of the heritage, being the entry, descent, and landing part of it, (EDL) with the parachutes, airbags, and all that. But as I tell people, once that thing sets down on the planet, those petals open up, it's a completely new animal. I tell them it's a lot bigger, it's a lot smarter, and it's one hell of a lot more money than what we've done in the past.

P2K: How does that affect the people on the mission in terms of the challenge and how much is riding on this mission?

Tom Shain: Well, again, everybody realizes the importance of this, and the amount of money that's been spent and the importance of this to JPL, to NASA, and for it to be a great success. Because at this time, because of the Columbia thing and what have you, we really need something like this.

And... To me, one of the good things about a Mars program is that we're only seven months away from when we launch to when we can really see things happening, not like some of the (Ed. larger and longer-term missions), like, Cassini and Galileo , it takes literally several years for the spacecraft to get to its target, whereas we'll be there in a matter of months. So it really keeps the public up on the curve, what's going on, as well as our team. They're still quite excited from the launch and it's just an exciting situation.

P2K: Along with being close to the end of the excitement of being at the Cape, there's also a lot of increased tension from the fact that you've got a limited number of days, and things keep on cropping up. (Tom laughs.) What's going on at the moment with the rovers?

Tom Shain: Well, right now, of course, with the Mars Exploration Rovers project, we're in the process of putting the second rover on top of the Delta third stage back at our facility. (i.e. PHSF.) And, as you say, these problems tend to keep cropping up. And as a lot of people know, and you're well aware, we have had some problems since we've been here. We try our darndest at JPL to test every possible sequence and every possible configuration that we're going to be subjected to down here. Sometimes that's impossible to do, part of the reason being that sometimes the software's not quite ready to actually have the spacecraft configured to the proper modes to do thorough testing. So when you come down to Kennedy you can always expect to find one or two problems. And with the planetary program, we know that we have - those lines aren't drawn in sand, they're drawn in cement, and we have those dates that we have to launch by, or it's a matter of packing up, going home, and hopefully doing it a couple of years from now.

But coming down here people realize the importance of getting this thing working. That's the reason guys have been working two shifts seven days a week since we have gotten here. The two shifts, of course, are from, like, seven-thirty 'til midnight. And we've been running the spacecraft overnight to acquire hours on it, twenty-four hours a day. We've actually had people come in and just baby-sit to accumulate hours to have on the spacecraft to make sure everything is working properly.

But it's quite a process when we come down from Pasadena. There's a lot of disassembly that's taken place in Pasadena and we, in turn, have to reassemble everything once we arrive at Kennedy. And one of the main important things we have to do is verify that all these functions that have been de-mated, connectors, what have you, and once they're re-mated that they're all performing properly.

A problem that we just had recently was due to the fact that they did a lot of re-verification on some rework that had been done and they missed one small item, and this happened to be the fuse problem we had. As I say, we try our best to do everything a hundred percent, but sometimes these things slip by you. We have a term for that, I'm sure you're going to beep this out, but they're called "Oh-shits."

It's another thing I like to say about JPL - as I say I've been there going on forty-two years - and JPL has a great reputation for being a very, very smart bunch of people and a smart organization. We haven't always gotten that way just by being smart. We've gotten that way a lot of times by being pretty damn stupid and from being stupid we've learned a lot of good lessons. That's made us one hell of a lot smarter.

And I'm sure it's going to continue to be that way. With the complications and complexity of this hardware that we have and we're testing and trying to launch, it takes one heck of a team of a lot of smart people to make sure all this stuff is performing properly.

P2K: In previous missions you've been out there on the floor (i.e. as ATLO electrical lead) taking care of things. This time you're not out there on the floor, but you still see when Pete comes back and says, "Gee, if we didn't catch then it would have been mission catastrophic," and you've got a lot of your own pride riding on this baby as well. When you know that there was a big mistake that could have been "mission catastrophic" and you just caught it, how does that make you feel about the rest of the test program?

Tom Shain: Well, obviously, at this stage of the game when they discover a potential problem I'm sure everybody feels the same way: is there anything else there, what else is hiding around waiting to bite us in the butt? And we've had a couple of them down here, and again I go back to the "Oh, shits" - they're there. And sometimes you just have to be in a particular situation, you have to be out hunting, doing some serious looking to try to find these problems.

And unfortunately what happens a lot of times is things are going along quite well and they'll discover a problem in the way something's designed, they'll assign a "red team," "green team," to do a lot of investigations to find out what is the problem. And a lot of the times we'll uncover another problem by doing this. So we learn a lot. Obviously when we come down here we don't like for this to happen, but it's the "space biz," and it does happen, it has always happened, and it will continue to happen.

P2K: When we think about rovers going to Mars we think about Sojourner, we think about the pictures coming back. We don't think about road trips across the country, from the west coast. What's that convoy like?

Tom Shain: Well, as we were speaking earlier, I've always considered the first part of the trip to Mars is the twenty-six hundred road trip from JPL to Kennedy Space Center that we made three of this January, February, and March timeframe. And these trips are quite interesting, of course. We have the full responsibility to the project to get that hardware there safely, and, obviously, when I do the trips if I get four or five hours of sleep for the total three days I feel fortunate. It's very tiring, trying, and one heck of a lot of pressure. A lot of coordination goes into that, you know, to pull these trips off, not just at JPL with our security people, but working with the various states, getting permits. And the fact that we do have wide loads on these trips that requires Wide Load Escort Vehicles, special consideration by the states to allow us to travel around the clock, which I prefer to do because the sooner we get here the better off we are. I think when we stop along the highway and the more time we're stopped the more problems we can have or encounter. So we like to truck on, keep trucking.

This last (convoy), as you were saying, set a new record. We did the twenty-six hundred miles in approximately sixty hours, which is pretty good time, and realizing too that all of us, we stayed within the speed limit. Some people think we do these trips, because of what we're hauling, we only drive thirty-five or forty miles an hour. That's far from the truth. That would be one of the biggest hazards we could create for our convoy by driving those speeds. We drive what the speed allows us, we drive what the equipment allows.

We have equipment on board that's monitoring our ride so we know what a good ride the hardware's getting, and if we hear or see that we're having some problems we slow down accordingly. As I say, we have instrumentation on board that will alert us if we get into a situation where we see too many G's on our flight hardware taking place in our trailers. We'll usually stop, get out and check it, make sure everything's okay and then drive accordingly. There's times when we have to drive totally in the left lane (i.e. the higher-speed "passing" lane) because the right lane is so rough we're concerned about a hard ride.

You're continually on the radio. You made the trip with us coming down on Galileo (P2K Executive Producer Geoff Haines-Stiles was the producer/director on NOVA's ROCKY ROAD TO JUPITER program, which aired in 1986) and you know how much communication is going on when you're making these trips across country. It's definitely not a pleasure trip. When we do these, people say, "Hey, I'd really like to do that." I say, yeah, it's fun until about the California-Arizona border. I said, from then on, we only talk when we need to, usually, because it's a very hectic trip.

P2K: I get the sense that you personally get a bit of a kick out of it, even if it is a lot of hard work. Do you guys like to play trucker for some part of the mission?

Tom Shain: Oh yeah, there's no question about it. We have a lot of fun. You have to. If you didn't joke around and kid around. There's usually, in the motor home - well, you were with us, you know it can get pretty crowded, we can have five or six people in a motor home, and there's usually not a heck of a lot of room for people to kick back and sleep.

There's always somebody comes along with you that's one hell of a good sleeper and it makes people like myself and Jim Lloyd, the guy that works with me on this, he and I are terrible sleepers, so we're quite envious of some of these guys getting six and seven hours sleep at a time, whereas we feel fortunate if we get a half hour of sleep. But you know, as I say on these trips, normally we stop only for fuel and food, and we do both of those at the same time.

We will stop usually halfway across the country and some of the nice truck stops there, some of them are really wonderful, and we'll do a shower and clean up and change clothes. Those are sort of interesting, though. It costs you a dollar and they'll give you a small bar of soap, and give you a little paper placemat for your feet, give you a towel about fifteen inches by twelve inches to dry off with, but they're quite an experience... these truck stops. I could never be a trucker, but it is fun.

The excitement of it, having everything together, working with the states, working with the truck drivers. As we've talked before, normally when we do these convoys I've always specified the particular truck drivers that I would like to haul the flight hardware, and some of these guys I've dealt with on several convoys and we've been fortunate enough to get them back again.

I know at times they would like to take me out behind the truck and beat the hell out of me because I get pretty tough on them, saying let's stay together, let's slow it down, be careful and what have you, and these guys are used to trucking. You turn them loose on their own they drive pretty hard, whereas when they're with us they're under controlled driving elements.

P2K: I guess one of the reasons you like to do it is the gourmet food on the road. (Said with the intention to provoke!)

Tom Shain: Gourmet food, yeah. In fact, we always have a joke. The guys know that I like biscuits and gravy, being raised in southern Missouri, but they're always saying, "Hey, Shain, there's a place up the road here that's got the best biscuits and gravy between California and Florida." Well, not always true. Sometimes it turns out it's their favorite truck stop. I said, now, wait a minute, guys, you've fooled me a couple of times but it don't work anymore. But, honestly, we do have a place where we stop in Texas, and we've been able to stop there a couple of times, that has an excellent buffet and we try to sort of time it where we either make their luncheon buffet, or their supper buffet. So there are some of our favorites as we're traveling across that we have some of this wonderful "gourmet food." In most cases I don't recall anybody ever getting food poisoning. There's times you look at the food and you think you might, but we seem to always survive it.

P2K: One of the things we saw you do was to affix a signature chip on both of the rovers. What is that and what's the meaning of that for the mission?

Tom Shain: Well, the signature chip, what it actually is is, many months ago Jim Lloyd and I put together the signature sheet, which we had done it on Pathfinder, I did it again on the DS1 [Deep Space One, an ion drive experimental mission] and we did it again on the Mars Exploration Rovers. And we essentially had these sheets and passed them out to a lot of people, we had them on the visitor gallery at JPL, and everybody just signs up, gets their signature on board. And, as I said before, the other people we've had, John Glenn, and some other senators and astronauts, and just a whole conglomerate of big-shot type people, directors at Caltech (Ed. the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA), everyone actually signed on this signature sheet. So what we do from there, we actually have these signatures laser-engraved on a very small chip, about the size of your little fingernail, and in this case they mounted them inside of a transistor, what they call a transistor TO8 Can, with a small cutout window in it. And we in turn mounted this small transistor can on the rover itself, so it will actually be on the rover, and the position is then when we land the camera will be able to scan down and can see this chip where it's located. But again it has probably thirty-five to forty thousand signatures on it, so it's a thrill... people knowing that they actually have their real signature on the planet. There's another program they had at JPL where you could do it online, and you actually have a certificate with your name on there, but for me this is a lot more personal, where people can have their names on there.

In fact, there were cases where we had schools come in and they'd take a page of this home back to their school and they would sign it, have all the kids sign it. I mean, some of them were just scribblings. And they would list on there "So-and-so school from Mississippi" or wherever they may have been. But it's always turned out to be a very popular thing with people and they really enjoyed doing something like that, and I enjoyed doing it. I think it's a big thrill.

P2K: They say that the folks who made the medieval cathedral used to sign the stones even though nobody would ever see them. Do you think the men and women who built the rovers really care about having their signature on Mars?

Tom Shain: I think they do. I think it's a big thrill. In fact, we've seen people go to the Moon and they brought part of Surveyor back. Some day, who knows, they may be going to Mars and somebody might go over and pop off that little chip and bring that back. With a laser-type microscope, you can actually - an electronic type scanning microscope - you can actually read these signatures on there. So I think everybody gets a big thrill. And there were other places on the spacecraft that local workers signed and some of the blank panels on the back of the solar arrays are going to be covered up. We were allowed to put our signatures on there too. Of course, it's a safe thing we do, approved by everybody, but it's fun to do that. It's a fun thing to do.

P2K: Your signature is personally on there too?

Tom Shain: Oh yes, yeah, mine's on there, Jim Lloyd's. A lot of the team that worked on it corresponds on the signature sheets as well as on my grandkids and family and friends.

P2K: Thinking about the other work that's done in addition to this signature chip, even more important than the signature chip, there's so many tests that are going on out there on the floor and in the high bay, and they started off with tests back at JPL. You used to be responsible for making sure that all those things worked right. Looking at the rovers, how on earth can a human being be sure that every "x" particle goes into "y" connector in just the right way? How can anybody double-check that?

Tom Shain: Well, as you say, the job I took on this time, with the Mars Exploration Rovers project, is logistics manager, essentially. What I did before, I was actually the test engineer on the floor, a hands-on type person that was responsible for the electrical integration, and putting it together electrically, and working with the various engineers and drawings to make sure that we do a thorough checkout of this thing. It is quite a job making sure that all these functions are matched together, measured.

Normally during the integration we get this new hardware in, we have integration procedures, we'll actually go through and measure the voltages, make sure that all the voltages are proper and where they're supposed to be. I take a lot of oscilloscope pictures for documentation to make sure all the wave forms look good, the data forms look good, and everything is working properly. So it's quite a process.

As I said earlier, one thing we do have to do every time we make or break these connectors, after you've done this verification you do have to come back electrically, not necessarily with breakout boxes and scopes (Ed. oscilloscopes) and things but through testing to verify that all these functions are still performing properly. We have found in some cases where pins have been bent and they get checking a function and this function's not performing properly. Say, de-mate a connector and lo and behold, during the mating process a pin got bent over. So it does happen.

P2K: People think about "rocket science" or astronomy, you have to have a PhD, you have to have a degree to contribute to this whole thing. What do you think about that?

Tom Shain: Well, you know, as I say, I come from southern Missouri, a fairly small town, and I for sure wasn't the brightest kid in school. I'm the youngest of five boys, and when I came along to go to school and just because my name, a lot of my teachers had taught my brothers, so I was blacklisted the moment they found out my name. So I had a pretty tough time getting through school, had to make sure I followed the rules and did things right. But I never thought in those days that I would have the opportunity to be able to do the things I've been able to do. I'm not college degreed, as I say I've been at JPL forty-two years, so I figure that's forty-two years of pretty damn good on the job training. And I feel so damn fortunate for things I've gotten to do. I don't think a ten-year college degree would have made my job any more interesting and fun, and that's very important, "fun." If you've got a job that you can go home at the end of the day and say, you know, we really had a good day today, and not only that, I had some fun at work, that means a lot. That means a hell of a lot more than you coming to work thinking this could be a fun day doing some of this stuff, something new, but...

Degrees are wonderful. You know, I'm for everybody having a degree, there's no question about it. But as I say, I've been all over the world, I've been to France and several other countries, to Moscow to the Kazachstan to see their facilities, and that's not really because of my having a college degree. I guess it's because of all the on-the-job training that I was lucky enough to have and the people I got to work with that were patient and good enough to teach me the ropes. And so that's sort of where I come from. As I say, it's just been a great honor to me, I just feel so blessed for the things I've gotten to do these forty-two years at JPL.

P2K: What's the best part about your job?

Tom Shain: The best part of my job probably is seeing these things land on the planet and knowing that you played a fairly major role in making these success. As I say, I've worked nineteen missions, this is my nineteenth, and may or may not be my last. There's still a possibility I may work one more, "CloudSat", going out of Vanderberg sometime next year. I have to give that some serious consideration. But it's knowing that you've been part of that, and knowing that things that are going to other planets, and landing on other planets, that you've actually, you know, touched with your own hands, and your handprints aren't necessarily on there but part of you is with it. It may not be physically, but for damn sure there's a lot of you with that hardware that's going to these other places.

P2K: What's the worst part of your job? Be honest.

Tom Shain: Worst part of my job? Well, as I have said before, one of the reasons I decided not to take on the test engineering position is because I've been doing that for several years and in all honesty I don't care to work sixty and eighty hour weeks like I have on the last several programs. And I told that to my management. I said, I really want to work the program but honestly... I just don't care to do that, I'm getting too damn old to be doing that, and that's when I decided to take on the logistics. And there's a lot of complications, you know. Sometimes we have a lot of complications in trying to get our work done. We do things a certain way at JPL, Pasadena, we have a certain amount of control in how we can come and go and test our spacecraft, and when we do come down to Kennedy Space Center they do have their rules and regulations which don't necessarily go in parallel with ours. So sometimes getting things done down there has become a little more complicated there than what we're used to at home. That takes a little getting used to.

But all in all it's all workable, we've made it, we'll continue to make it, and I know that this program is just going to be a super success and it's going to be another one I can say, yeah, I worked on that, that was a success and I'm proud of it.