SPECIAL REPORT: Behind the scenes for Pathfinder's landing on Mars
The Days Before Landing
Inside JPL's Von Karman Auditorium, with the mighty
Voyager spacecraft lined up to left, it's the first Pathfinder press conference.
The first thing you notice about the Pathfinder mission team is how young
so many of them are.
There's a "veteran" here and there, like Project
Manager Tony Spear. But Matt Golombek, project scientist, Rob Manning
(flight system -- meaning the spacecraft on its way to Mars -- chief engineer)
and Richard Cook, mission manager, are a new generation. Their briefing
is upbeat: things have gone well to date. And listening to Matt Golombek
review the science that can be done, the excitement builds in the audience.
For 21 years after the Viking spacecraft
arrived at Mars, humans have not gone back to the Red Planet -- at least
successfully. There've been at least two Russian failures and one American.
Listening to the engineers, you wonder, how can Pathfinder possibly have
its parachute and airbags inflate, its retrorockets fire, on cue -- after
seven months in space? Sitting in the audience, watching camera men dance
around the full-size model on its painted drop cloth with rust-red rocks,
I can't help feeling nervous, more nervous than the Pathfinder team, it
Later that afternoon we are on the last tour of Mission Control before
the area is buttoned up for the landing, set for three days hence. It's
Jennifer Harris, flight director
for Sol 1, is busy monitoring spacecraft data. One sign reads: OBJECTS
ON THE CALENDAR ARE CLOSER THEN THEY APPEAR. True for Pathfinder, and
true also for our upcoming live two-hour special. Like the spacecraft,
we also rely on satellite dishes and there are 101 things to go wrong.
Also like Pathfinder we rely on a team of hard working people. But hearing
that it's only 40-50 people who "fly" Pathfinder, it seems an amazing
accomplishment, almost more impressive than the hundreds of people it's
taken to fly previous missions.
Out on the mall area, nestled between the
buildings at JPL, is evidence of what the spacecraft's really like: a
huge cluster of airbags, like a giant bunch of grapes, shows what the
spacecraft is going to look like when it bounces down on the surface.
It's an amazing time to be at an amazing place.
Today the press conference is once more upbeat: but it's followed by
one involving NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. "People have to be grown-up
enough to understand that bold things, like Pathfinder, run risks. I want
my people to try, and if they fail, learn from their mistakes and try
again." It's a frank statement, but it matches Matt Golombek's blunt reponse
to a press question: "We don't think any dust storm (something talked
about in the media in the past few days) will deposit enough dust to impair
the mission." He cites Viking data: crisp, even blunt, unlike the polite
replies to oddball press questions served up by many others. It's as if
the entire team is trimmed down to fitting weight, no time for anything
other than facts.
But amid the seriousness, there's some time
for fun and human feelings. Early on July 3, the Mars Global Surveyor
(MGS) team march en masse to the Mars Pathfinder offices. There are red
and blue balloons for nearly everyone in sight! Glenn Cunningham, on behalf
of MGS, presents large framed posters to Tony Spear and others. MGS's
time will come. Now it's Pathfinder that's on the front-burner.
10:00 a.m., Pacific: The first briefing of what should be landing day.
Overnight, the team looked at Pathfinder's position and realized there
was no need for a trajectory correction maneuver: they were within 45
kilometers of where they needed to be, close to some higher features which,
navigator Pieter Kallemeyn said, made the planetary geologists happy.
Rough enough to be interesting, gentle enough not to trouble the spacecraft.
Maybe. Probably. Within 3.5 hours the spacecraft should be on the surface.
For some of the team, like Pieter, their job is almost done. For others,
the excitement's just beginning, with what they hope will be days of rover
operations on the surface.
Downtown the Planetary Society's PlanetFest
starts off as a huge success, people thronging everywhere. A large-screen
projection system brings in NASA-TV, and people sit expectantly, listening
to the blow-by-blow coverage of the mission. Upstairs, I try and time
my presentation on "Mars Team Online" to the actual landing. I run the
sequence showing what should happen over Mars at just the same time as
the flight plan calls for the events to happen. For almost a year I've
been using the wonderful NASA/Georgia Tech animation. It's hard to believe
that it's now happening -- for real -- on Mars.
Back at JPL -- SUCCESS! The DSN captures a radio signal that Pathfinder
has safely met the surface. In the press room managers and reporters alike
cheer. It's a national holiday for most of Americans, but for JPL, Pathfinder's
arrival is celebration enough. The red rockets over Mars are the pyrotechnics
which have obviously worked to bring this ambitious spacecraft to the
surface. Fireworks on the Red Planet! Now, a wait till 2:07 p.m., Pacific
until the first real data are expected.