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Spirit Night at JPL

Morris Jones


“I am part of the media this Saturday night ... My media connection? I'm a reporter for the SJAA Ephemeris ...”




January 3, 2004, 7:30 p.m. -- Wouldn't it be fun to be in the media room at JPL on the night of a landing on Mars? I am part of the media this Saturday night, complete with a seat at a table, a net connection for my laptop, and the privilege of asking questions of JPL management at press briefings. My media connection? I'm a reporter for the SJAA Ephemeris, and correspondent to member clubs of the Astronomical Association of Northern California.

Earlier today I filled out a security form that specified my addresses and employers for the past five years, presented my driver's license and passport, and was rewarded with an official PRESS badge with the label "Restricted, no escort required." (If you're foreign press, you have to be escorted. There's a small army of JPL employee volunteers acting as foreign press escorts over the weekend.)

Of course it has been an eventful Saturday evening here at JPL, but I dove right in to my role. At an afternoon press conference, everyone was focused on the potential failure of the landing. I decided to ask a somewhat lighter question to the four program managers.

"What time will it be in Gusev crater when Spirit lands? And what will the days be like for the engineers and scientists during operation of the mission?"

There I was live on NASA-TV sitting next to a reporter from the Associated Press asking my fun little question. I think the managers really enjoyed the question because it took them away from this focus on Mars failures.

They answered that it would be about 2 in the afternoon, Gusev crater time, when Spirit lands. And during the operation there are two shifts of engineers and scientists working the mission -- a martian day shift, and a martian night shift. Both teams are tied to the martian sol clock, so their shifts would begin about forty minutes later every day. It's torturous on your body clock, but nobody really minds.

The other interesting fact they pointed out is that Opportunity would land in a spot about 12 hours (martian time) away from Spirit, so the operation teams will be in completely opposite phase.

As I write this, I'm enjoying the NASA-TV theater of "polling" flight controllers prior to EDL - entry, descent, and landing. It seems absurd to me, since there's no way to abort the landing and "go around" if some system isn't nominal, but it makes for good drama. After all, they're watching events that took place nine minutes ago, and can't issue a command to the spacecraft that would be received for nine minutes. Eighteen minutes round trip is impossible reaction time when events change so quickly during EDL.

But now it's time to wait for word of the landing.

11:00 p.m. -- Perfect landing! It was certainly a thrilling hour, and a treat to get to sit in the briefing room with all those illuminati sharing the celebration.

By the time this is published, Spirit's mission should be well under way, and we'll all know if Opportunity has been able to duplicate Spirit's success.

While there really wasn't much difference between being here and watching NASA-TV from home, being here and reporting first hand was very special. Signing off, live from NASA JPL in Pasadena. Sleep well, Spirit.


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