If you're interested in the state of the Spirit rover, see my most recent posting on that. Here, now, is a "rough transcript" of the "Mars-side Chat" featuring Dr. Ed Weiller, associate administrator for space science, Dr. Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mr. Orlando Figueroa, director of NASA's Mars exploration program, and Firouz Naderi, manager of the Mars exploration program at JPL.
Dr. Ed Weiller: No format to this press conference, your chance to ask any questions. I appreciate that you know by now that landing and operating on Mars is really tough. We warned you. You and us got used to success after success. We've had the early ups and the down and we're on the up again. There will be more downs. We've got the best team on Earth operating the Spirit lander. I came here yesterday at 3 o'clock expecting a funeral and things are looking a lot better. There's a lesson in that. The third thing I'd like to say is that the people at JPL and Lock-Martin deserve a lot of credit. We've been relying on MGS and Odyssey. MGS is well beyond its end of mission and Odyssey is coming to the end and we've relied heavily on them. Any questions you have...
Q. How many website hits. Last count was 2.5 billion
Ed: 4 billion. Since we landed, we've already exceeded total number of hits from 2003. The majority of those hits are from youngsters. That's with our vision.
Dr. Charles Elachi: That has exceeded the total hits on all government websites (in 2003?) including IRS. 29 million unique users.
Q. Thoughts on Moon and Mars and beyond the solar system.
Charles: People already working on this. This is a generation, we've got a younger generation of scientists and engineers that will be carrying this beyond. The next generation is already here.
Orlando Figueroa: Average age of people working on this program is remarkable and energizing to see. There is a next generation that is coming and there is the older generation (gestures to those on stage) but there is also a present generation of explorers that is keeping the vision alive.
Firouz Naderi: We have gotten a lot of email from 5 and 6 year olds that have suggested ways to fix the rover. One child asked for a full blueprint of the rover and promised he would fix it.
Charles: one other kid volunteered to go up to Mar and fix it.
Ed: There is a valuable life lesson here. If you try something difficult you try and you persist and failure is OK but you keep trying and trying and trying. It would have been easy to throw our hands up in the air when the media declared us dead a couple of days ago, some in the media, but they kept trying and got the first step to the solution.
Q. Could any of you comment on whether there are particular lessons about [....] diagnose and solve problems we're having now?
Charles: On just about every mission we've had similar problems. You cannot predict all the problems. [connection lost...] You prepare and you have a first-rate team. You cannot predict the millions of scenarios. If you have a first-rate team and have the people who built the hardware there when you run into a problem, having those people there is important.
Ed: In Mars 98 we had two failures noted in the report. The team that built the craft left when it was done. Prime recommendations for that report specifically said keep the people who built the spacecraft on the team.
Orlando: Leadership is important, too. There is no room to panic. They kicked us (management) out of the room when we got too loud.
Firouz: We have a lot of flexibility in the product. People have been asking for human medical analysis. We are going to go to RAM which might not be as efficient, my left arm doesn't take the spoon to my mouth as efficiently as my right arm does. I'm confident that if it comes that we cannot use Flash memory, we will be able to do just fine, maybe a little less efficient, but we'll do just fine and I'm not saying we won't be able to revive flash memory.
Q. What's the mood in Washington about impact on the economy. The Apollo mission innovation benefitted the economy of Southern California. What might happen later this decade.
Ed: President's new initiative will probably be in the O'Keefe talk in a couple more hours. President made it clear that we're going to increase robotic and human exploration. That's going to require new technologies and new investments so perhaps the people in IT or in the space world will be happy with that initiative.
Firouz: Space program starts something, private sector picks it up and then we pump the private sector gains back into the space program. A symbiosis there.
Q. Will there be a private sector fast-track plan?
Orlando: Part of the Presidents agenda is more aggressive competitions.
Charles: Even with these rovers, there were hundreds of small companies involved, even internal to NASA, there is a tremendous number of small and large business involved. Odyssey and MGS done by Lockheed Martin. These initiatives will revive not only industry but also in education. Lot of kids going into engineering.
Ed: A lot of people believe that when they see some of our missions that these things are built within NASA. It's hardly the case. Even in-house programs like MER use small companies all over the country. Some are totally outside like MGS with Lockheed Martin. We're not carrying money to Mars. Every dollar that went into these rovers went into salaries in California and Colorado and into companies here in the USA.
Firouz: The company that built the MER arm talking on the radio referred to it as "our rover". Contributors think of it as their own.
Q. Some talk about how much they accomplished in a short development cycle. We've known about the close approach to Mars, why was cycle so compressed? Funding issues? Also how do you select the partners? How does the money flow?
Ed: Why was the schedule compressed? We had two failures in Mars 98. We had a program in place and those failures showed us how crazy that program was, including sample returns and other budget-busting plans. We had to scrap that program as unrealistic. It was rebuilt from the ground up. One aspect was these two Mars rovers. Pathfinder's airbag success led us to believe that JPL could do this.
In terms of how Cornell got involved, all scientific instrument programs are selected through a competitive process. NASA headquarters is responsible for that so we issue an "announcement of opportunity" open to all institutions. They send in proposals. NASA headquarters does a review and selection. That's how we selected payload for this and other missions. In the old days NASA used to give it all to the NASA centers. We've done a 180 on that. It also happened that Steve Squyres [who resides at Cornell] was the Principal Investigator on the team.
Charles: We had 3 years from when it was selected to launch it. That was very tough. It was challenging and that's why you see Ed and Orlando and Administrator O'Keefe giving extra praise.
Orlando: Also, the concept of a "program view" is important. There was a dead heat between another orbiter and going to the surface. When you looked at the data coming from MGS and the still being developed Odyssey we realized that the advantage of newer technologies in a new orbiter wasn't as good as in a lander.
Firouz: Late April of 2000 we were sitting here looking at short lists for 2003 and MER was not on that short list. MER proposal persisted and got into the choice of 2 (MER and orbiter) and we went to Ed and he heard the choices of the "safer" orbiter and MER and he ended up with a tie-breaker vote and that's how MER came from the back of the pack.
Q. How much extra did the second rover cost.
Orlando: 820 million total, either 50%/50% or 60%/%40.
Q. You talked about lessons learned from 98 failures. Didn't Mars Exploration office fold into a larger entity?
Ed: Tom Young, in his report on Mars 98 failures, had lots of recommendations and we committed to follow every one. One recommendation was to take the program back into NASA headquarters. We have a much tighter command chain, now. One problem with Mars 98 was no communication from lower levels in JPL to higher levels even with JPL and worse up to NASA headquarters. This has been dramatically improved. People were afraid to ask dumb questions. I ask dumb questions all the time, to try to set an example. Freedom of communications can make a world of difference. Communication is critical. People think of the technology but something simple like good communications is important. I think we've achieved that.
Charles: Young report also said it's not easy to do deep space missions so we engaged more heavily the technical expertise. Made absolutely sure that they're getting support, advise, peer review. Going to Mars is not a routine thing. 15 years from now it may become routine.
Ed: It ain't gonna be routine ;-)
Charles: after 400 million miles we got down within 100 meters. That takes a lot.
Q. Two dumb questions :-) Could you talk more about cost v. performance with two rovers. Why not a bunch of little tiny ones. Second part is "follow the water" choice. What are you not doing by chasing the water.
Ed: If my neighbor across the fence asks why are we doing this. Simple answer is "we are going to Mars to search for life" The bottom line is that to search for life you've got to do geology, minerology, climatology, atmosphere. We're going there to answer a basic human question, "are we alone?" We're going there, even sending humans to find out are we alone. On earth, wherever you find water, you find evidence of life.
Charles: To find life you need to understand a lot. A single little machine is not going to find life. This is a long term program to find life. You need a broader understanding.
Orlando: A lot of very small ones versus a bigger one, when we launched pathfinder and sojourner, it's mobility was limited and a lot of brains were sitting on the lander. With MER we've got a larger rover with brains on the rover and a bigger set of science instruments. Next generation will open new doors with nuclear power and more mobility, capacity.
Firouz: If you only have one kind of screwdriver in your toolbox you're not a serious handyman. We don't have one size fits all. People ask if we're only going to use airbags now. No. We'll use them when they make sense but keep expanding the tool set we have.
Ed: small things will have a place in the future. You've heard us talking about understanding our atmosphere. Right now we have a luxury of satellites telling us about our weather. I have to believe we'll be landing lots of little weather boxes in the future. There will be a place for small things.
Q. Nano sensors?
Ed: Scout program. Mars surprises us every time we go there so we created scout program and we just selected a scout program, Phoenix lander for north poll scheduled to land in 2008. We expected and got proposals for "motherships" that would go and drop lots of smaller things.
Orlando: Program investing in technologies to enable that.
Firouz: we have range of crafts from little tiny crab-like crafts all the way up to rovers that would roll over and squish MER.
Q. You mentioned yesterday's mood. What's your mood today and expectations.
Ed. There was nothing but bad news yesterday. I tend to expect the worst. Anything above the worst makes me feel great and I could tell this morning when I walked in that something good had happened. Tom Gavin was smiling and he never smiles. I'm back at reality and we have a long road ahead of us. They made a prediction in what was causing the systematics of the problem, sent some tests and it worked.
Charles: mood has come up and down but one thing that has stayed steady is that the guys, and girls have stayed focused, disciplined and calm. I give a lot of credit to the team and leadership.
Orlando: The one thing that happened immediately within seconds of the problem being identified the news made it right up through the chain. Then the team had some time to feel sad and that was important. First day and a half were grueling but the team switched almost immediately to another mode and jumped on it. I said "they're gonna figure this out". During development we often questioned whether we were gonna make it and we did. We have a resilient team.
Ed: Speculation based on human nature, there are a few engineers that I rely on one who is very conservative and negative, that he was very positive and that we can go a lot longer than three months, given that I'm pretty confident that we'll have a successful mission.
Charles; example of Galileo. Even with all th problem we had a great mission. We'll get through this.
Ed. We attended many funerals of Galileo and just recently we celebrated its total success.
Q. Operationally what will you do differently with Opportunity?
Firouz: two teams, two different sides of the planet. At this point we have no evidence that what is ailing Spirit will be a problem with Opportunity. If it is hardware, the occurrence of the problem could be much more random. If it was software, even at that, you and I can buy the same laptop and it's not necessarily that what happens with the software on mine will happen on yours.
Charles: but we'll be looking.
Firouz: Spirit is in a safe state. We're focused on getting Opportunity on the surface safely then some focus back on Spirit.
Q. Demonstrate the value of all of this by talking about what people use in everyday life that come from these missions. I think of the internet. What do you see as benefits in the future to general public to keep up interest.
Orlando: You've seen the access we've provided at all the websites that are disseminating all this data. The other is that there have been several focused events, Marsapallooza, you may have heard, to get schools and children involved in the process.
Q. How do you see a shift of gears with the science community to start asking questions about human operational activities on Mars.
Ed: near term space science missions will continue and continue to be science driven. I see more robotic missions not fewer. I see a combination of science goals with other goals that tie in to human exploration. We might start measuring radiation and how to convert Martian materials into human-usable stuff. We know how to go to the Moon and we know how to go to Mars and we'll be a platform for the human exploration program.
Q. Will you start inserting human exploration projects into 2011 or 2009 missions?
Ed: maybe 2009 with the nuclear lander. Possibility that there may be Mars missions inserted too.
Charles: Complementary efforts. Accuracy of landing, pinpoint landing is one example. Engineering objectives can be developed and tested in science missions.
Ed: Right, we might test some of that in the 2008 Moon mission. We might test precise landing missions to get the right rock back from the Aikin basin on the Moon.
Q. Some scientists fear human exploration of Mars because it's potential to contaminate the planet.
Ed: That's been worried about for a long time. John Rummel, planetary protection officer at NASA has the job of ensuring that we don't carry contamination with it. He can report around me to the administrator if he sees something he doesn't like.
Orlando: John and I have become close personal friends and MER was an issue we had to address. MRO issues too. MSL has many issues too. You're carrying nuclear payload, you're potentially melting ice and creating environments and he won't let us get in trouble.
Briefing note: at 4pm we'll have a short brief with NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe and at 7:30 we'll begin live coverage of the Opportunity landing.