Geeks will be geeks

From Glenn Reynolds:

SPACE BABE OF THE YEAR? I haven’t been watching the NASA Mars coverage on C-SPAN, but several readers have, and they seem to find NASA flight director Jessica Collison especially appealing.

Seen on Slashdot:

And please, be sure to have it modelled by Ms. Townsend. For me, she’s a great role model for my daughters. For the rest of Slashdot: she’s a girl geek! Cool!

Actually, I went to school with Julie Townsend, though she was a couple years behind me. I’ve seen her around campus at JPL several times, but haven’t taken the chance to go over and say hi. Go Beavers!

Update: Don’t forget, Jennifer Trosper is Toot alumna, too.

The long journey to the red planet

Over at Rocket Man Blog, there’s a fantastic account of the many steps in getting to Mars. The animation by Dan Maas is available online using BitTorrent for the larger files. I’m currently trying to burn the DVD quality file onto a CD in SVCD format to play in a DVD player.

And speaking of web traffic, NASA has served over 15 TB in 78 hours. That comes out to over a solid 192 GB an hour, or 53 MB per second average, if my math is right. (It does appear that they’re using the MB = 1e6 bytes rule, rather than MB = 220 bytes.)

I, Rover

The journalists seem to have missed the fact that JPL developed a wonderful new artificial intelligence for Spirit and Opportunity. It’s such a high level of intelligence, in fact, that it immediately took to blogging. However, we seemed to have forgotten the important datum for Spirit’s AI, gender development software. While he seems to think that he and Opportunity are both male, their creaters seem to lean towards female. I knew we should’ve picked them up and looked underneath before we sent them out to Mars…

Lest anyone worry, I’m fairly certain that the software guys patched Movable Type to work around the latency issue.

My friend Roland

I had a pleasant visit from my friend, Roland, on New Year’s Day. We sat back, watched the first half of the Rose Bowl, and caught up on things. Roland is one of my best buddies from MIT days – we had regular prayer times together, and we even lifted weights for over a year. I had some geek pride so I showed off Bookcase to him. Turns out, he’s been bloggin, too, and he mentioned Bookcase when he got back to DC.

Shared Euphoria

Today was such a neat day at work. Everyone at JPL was wearing a smile. Anytime I passed someone who I knew had worked on MER, our eyes would meet, and we would both light up in ear-splitting grins. For a couple hours this morning, as everyone was arriving and swapping stories of Christmas and New Year’s vacation, you would hear “So where were you Saturday night?” and “I was so excited that I…”

Some of the scuttlebutt I heard was that the re-entry load was just under 6 g, about what was expected, but that the load on the first bounce from the airbags was about 8-10 g, less than half of the design limits. Of course, engineers always upper bound the load levels and take the appropriate risk factors and safety margins, but that’s just another sign that everything is going perfectly. I can’t remember which story I read, nor which JPL person they were quoting, but the statement was something to the effect that none of the test scenarios had ever gone as well as this reality is.

I spent most of the day in a Test Readiness Review for the Mars Climate Sounder. Since travel time to Mars is on the order of 6 months, and delivery schedules for spacecraft instruments require completion 8-12 months prior to launch, we’re beginning right now to assemble and test MCS for launch in 2005. MCS is going for luck on the third try since it was an instrument on both the Mars Orbiter and Mars Climate Orbiter in similar configurations, and neither of those spacecraft was successful.

Martian Soil

The best blog I’ve come across for following news of the Mars Exploration Rovers is Martian Soil. I’ve got it bookmarked now, for sure.

One link I found through there are 3-D stereoscopic images from the rover.

UPDATE: Another great weblog for following MER stuff is 2020 Hindsight, which links to an account by Dan Maas of how he created that great animation of the MER launch, travel, and landing.

UPDATE2: Asa Dotzler is blogging his notes from the MER press briefings. They’re really great.

33% Success rate? Whatever…

According to the Associated Press:

Scientists were jubilant over the success on a planet where two of every three lander missions have produced nothing but space junk.

According to ANDREW BRIDGES, AP Science Writer:

About two-thirds of all missions sent to the surface of Mars have failed.

According to the Arizona Republic:

Success is hardly a given, ASU scientists say. About two-thirds of the 33 NASA missions to Mars have failed.

The first two are very misleading statements, and the third is just dead wrong.
JPL’s list of past Mars missions shows four landers/rovers, not including MER. The Planetary Society has a table of past Mars missions. In that list, NASA has four past Mars landers, plus the current two. Even in the AP’s own list, NASA’s only failed lander is the Mars Polar Lander, which included two probes. Viking 1 and Viking 2 both consisted of an orbiter and a lander each, and both had successful landings. Mars Pathfinder and the Sojourner rover were outrageously and famously successful.

Therefore, NASA was three for four (75%) before MER, and now, four for five (80%). Even if you count the failed probes with MPL, NASA was three for six before MER. Most American high-school seniors could tell you that that success rate is 50%.

Sensationalistic reporters decided to include Soviet and Russian missions, with a combined 0 for 5 success rate. Why on earth would you want to include NASA’s successes with others’ failures? The fact that communism doesn’t lend itself well to managing space exploration should not reflect on NASA’s own ability.

There’s a fantastic post on the Rocket Man Blog about the difficulty in getting to Mars, and he has a later post about the success rate, figuring about a 60% chance for MER. He also links to an article in Space Review by Jeff Foust with this key quote:

Mars has been one of the most popular destinations for missions beyond the Earth. Since 1960 the United States and the former Soviet Union have launched 34 missions to Mars: 15 by the US and 19 by Russia and the former USSR. NASA’s success rate is not too bad: nine of those 15 missions, including the Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars Odyssey missions still in progress, can be considered successes. Russia’s luck has not been nearly as good: 14 of its 19 missions failed, and only one—Zond 3—can be considered a complete success; the remaining four are, at best, partial successes. Overall 20 of the 34 American and Russian Mars missions, or 59 percent, failed.

So, while the world may indeed only succeed once for every three attempted Mars landings, don’t figure that NASA, and by extension, JPL, is that bad. We’re at 80% right now! Don’t believe everything you read in the paper or online, boy and girls. Getting to and landing on Mars is indeed quite difficult, but we’re far better at it than your above-average baseball player is at getting on base. Keep your fingers crossed for Spirit and Opportunity!

UPDATE: Asa Dotzler picks up on much of the same thing. He calls it a failure meme

Spirit has landed!

Spirit has landed! This photo from JPL shows my group supervisor on the far right and several of the people I worked with over the past two years. I wasn’t at JPL last night, but I was jumping up and down, nonetheless. It’s an amazingly hard feat to accomplish, landing on Mars. The rest of the mission, gathering data, pales in comparison, in my estimation. It’s still difficult, but just knowing you’ve successfully hit the atmosphere at 12,000 MPH, and bounced multiple times on an air-bag to land gives one a bit of confidence.

The first images are really cool. The image from the NavCam is a full 360-degree scan. It’s amusing, since I saw several of the test images with 360-degree scans of the test room, too.

Friday at work,there was a palpable nervousness around the lab. With the Stardust probe close encounter of Wild-2 happening Friday morning, there were enough media folks around then to really clog things up. JPL employees had been told to stay away form the main gate yesterday, and that only specially-badged people would be allowed around the Flight Ops building. All the talking heads had their spots picked out to do their interviews, and we’d obligingly placed several of the full-scale models on the JPL mall to give them talking points. Even with the rain, the temporary tents were doing fine.

PBS will be showing a special tonight, called Mars: Dead or Alive which will include footage from last night. They’d held off on completing the show until they knew if we were initially successful.

Maybe it’s tough for non-technical people to understand, but the success just makes me feel giddy all over. Something I worked on, with some of the smartest people in the world, worked right the very first time it had to. For an engineer, there is nothing sweeter. And it was a huge team at JPL that worked on various parts of MER. I handled most of the vibration testing for all the cameras, and some structural analysis work for various sundry parts, like the propellant system, the solar panels, and others. And it all came together at the Jet Propulsion Lab.