THE DAYS BEFORE LANDING
JULY 1: As you drive up to JPL, it's clearly not business as usual. Outside the main gates are a posse of satellite trucks, square and round and odd-shaped dishes pointed to the sky. Down below, the sidewalks are criss-crossed with metal ductwork, safeguarding cables. It seems a metaphor for what's to go on this week. You only see the stars by paying attention to worldly details down here on Earth. Mars Pathfinder will only get to the Red Planet if the logistics have gone well, and go well. Inside Von Karman, with the mighty Voyager spacecraft lined up to left, it's the first 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 Viking humans have not gone back to the Red Planet -- at least successfully. There's been at least 2 Russian failures, and one American. And listening to the engineers, you wonder, how can Pathfinder possibly have its parachute and airbags inflate, its retro-rockets fire, on cue -- after 7 months in space. Sitting in the audience, watching cameramen 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 seems. JULY 2 Later that afternoon we are on the last tour of Mission Control before the area is buttoned up for the landing, set for 3 days hence. It's pretty empty: Jennifer Harris, flight director for Sol 1, is there, 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 2-hour special. Like the spacecraft we also rely on satellite dishes, and there are a hundred and one things to go wrong. Also like Pathfinder we rely on a team of people, also working hard. 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 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. JULY 3 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 an unusually frank statement, but it matches Matt Golombek's blunt reponse to a press question: no shilly-shallying: we don't think any dust-storm (something talked about in the media inthe 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 3rd, the Mars Global Surveyor 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 MPF that's on the front-burner. JULY 4 07:00 The first briefing of what should be landing day. Overnight they'd looked at their 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 Live From Mars 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. There's a radio signaling that Pathfinder has safely met the surface. In the press room managers and reporters alike cheer. On the mall, over gyros and grape leaves (the center cafeteria is shut today: 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 14:07 until the first real data is expected.
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