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Getting Ready for the Big Day!

by Mark Adler

June 21, 1997

During the week of July 4, I will be one of many people interfacing with the media for the Mars Exploration Office. My job will be to help shelter the people who are actually operating the spacecraft from having to do a lot of media interaction so that they can continue to operate the spacecraft!

I'm preparing for this role by trying to get a much deeper understanding of the Pathfinder mission, what's going to happen when and why, especially at the times we're not getting data back to tell us what's going on. For example, there will be a long period of time between when Pathfinder lands on Mars and when we'll get pictures back. People will want to know what's happening. I'll be able to tell them things like the panels should be coming down, the airbags are being sucked under or the high-gain antenna is setting up. Between 10 a.m., when Pathfinder lands on Mars, and 2 p.m. when we expect to receive the lander's first signals, I'll have to describe what operations the lander is going through because no spacecraft data will be received during those four hours. Around 2 p.m., which is sunrise at the landing site, if everything's working, we should get some signal back from the lander that says, "I'm here and ready to go!" Then, sometime after 4 p.m. the first pictures begin to arrive. Of course, this is all assuming that everything goes as planned! It rarely does.

So, people here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are very busy rehearsing post-landing procedures. There are all kinds of contingencies and possibilities and events that are being rehearsed for possible different failures: what the lander team would do in a certain situation, how they would do it, what information they would get and how they would respond to it. The team is busy planning for all possible challenges.

Team members are definitely excited but I wonder if they have had time to really think about the significance of what's going on. There are rehearsals 24 hours a day. A guy was in my office yesterday saying that he had been here 16 hours and fortunately his job was over because two hours before Pathfinder "landed" in the rehearsal. After the "test" landing his job was finished as he was responsible for the entry analysis and the aerodynamics of the landing.

As far as what I'll be doing to help the Pathfinder team, I'll be prepared to assist with the media as early as July 2 until about July 5. I think I should set up a cot in my office because I have a feeling I'm going to be very busy. JPL is preparing to accommodate 19 microwave trucks, which will beam data back to their satellites for transmission to where ever in the country or the world the broadcast is destined. There will also be a lot of media as well as the public in downtown Pasadena at PlanetFest. Sponsored by The Planetary Society, PlanetFest is going to have a very large, multi-TV screen panel showing what's going on all the time.

If I had to summarize the feeling here at JPL, it's a combination of excitement, anticipation and stark terror. :-) Obviously, excitement about landing on Mars for the first time in over 20 years. Anticipation about what we might learn, since every time we've sent a new spacecraft to Mars in the past, our view of the planet has changed. And lastly, stark terror of significant failure in a very ambitious mission that is both trying a new way to land on Mars and operating the very first wheeled robot to ever be sent to Mars. There is always risk in sending our robot agents alone out into the dark expanses of space and the vast uncharted surfaces of other worlds. But if it all works, and we think it will, then all of Earth will share with us the wonder of exploring a new world.