Precipice…

[Editorial by Mike]

5 years hard work

120 minutes great excitement (launch)

7 months boredom (cruise)

6 minutes of sheer terror (EDL)

Ninety  One Thousand+ days of exploration

It all started like this…

January 2001… I received a call from a cohort, someone I hadn’t heard
from in a long time.

It was, for me, a very happy call.

"Mike, we’re putting the team back together.  We’re going back to Mars. 
Who’s available?"

Unfortunately from our company it was just me.  The Senior Engineers
from the Pathfinder project were both in management now, and not really
available for contracted engineering time.  (In a way, I’m an
underachiever, I stayed an engineer instead of vectoring into
management.)  I would have been honored to work with either or both of
them again, last time I learned so much it hurt.  As it is, it’s an
extreme honor to be requested for a project with any of NASA’s shops,
and for me – I grew up a stone’s throw away from JPL in Pasadena,  the first time was a dream come true, and now the dream is calling me back!

So… back to Mars.  And the rule of the day:  take what we know works,
fix things we know are broken, update it as well as possible without
introducing huge "deltas", and test the bejeevers out of everything we
can.  So, similar drill to the jobs since Pathfinder, only bigger.  In fact,
we rolled up a whole new updated release just for this job.

Over the next few years the Rovers evolved from gangly, unlikely looking
frame-things into gleaming metallic-and-silicon robots.  Our girls –
MER-A and MER-B, were growing up.  Remembering the Dynamic Duo –
Pathfinder and Sojourner, these robots had more than both of those
combined.  These were serious science machines.  And after so much work
on the parts of everyone involved, they were ready to go to Mars.

The various launch ceremonies, gatherings, speeches, and tours were
exciting and energizing.  We may all be scientists and engineers, but
we’re also a great collection of characters.  It was great to see so
many co-conspirators all in one place.  We were ready to invade another
planet with our work!

Both craft launched well.  Both craft landed well.  The landing
ceremonies were more exciting and nervous than the launch.  But in each
case, we received the signals telling us everything was okay, and there
was much rejoicing.  Opportunity, being the charmed girl she is, landed
in the trove that fulfilled the mission’s goals right off the bat.

Both Rovers have had their ups-and-downs, their problems and their
triumphs.  At this point, our babies are somewhere around 1000 years old,
in Rover years.  (With a planned life-span of 90 days, we’re over 11
lifetimes on the clock.) 
I’ve followed as much of it as I could, not as much as some, more than many others.  I’m sure other "MER family members" will agree – these are our "robotic children" out there.  Our kids have seen and done a lot of amazing things.  It still boggles the mind: a thousand days… on another planet!

After all this work, and all this overtime operation on the parts of our
daughters, and team members, we’ve come to this:  Opportunity is at Victoria Crater, a
crater bigger than most sports stadiums.  This is more than just a deep hole,
this is a window into Mars’ past.  This is a chance to see more exposed
rock face (and geologic history) than we ever imagined we’d have a
chance to see.  A wealth of information awaits. 

The Precipice of No Return?

It’s much more than a big hole.  It’s also a pit Opportunity may
not be able to exit from [see Dr. Squyre’s entry for September 28th] .  The science guys are looking for safe ways in
and out.  If there’s a way in, she’s going in.  This is an opportunity
we can’t pass on. She’s probably going in even if she can’t get back
out.  The realization that our baby could get stuck in the hole is a
horrible one, what an undignified way to end!  They’re tossing her into
a pit, for crying out loud!

That was my initial reaction.

After thinking on this for a while, what a fitting and dignified end. 
No matter weather she confirms what we’ve already seen, or shows us –
especially if there are surprises – this would be (metaphorically) like
dieing in paradise, surrounded by an achievement beyond dreams.  We’ll
know exactly where she is, and MRO can watch over her throughout his
tenure…

Image from Opportunity’s panoramic camera: