Author Archive

Over the Hills and through the Sand: Six Years of Driving on Mars

Thursday, December 31st, 2009
John Wright
John Wright

I almost didn’t get to drive the rovers.

As one of the five developers of the software used to build the command sequences and rehearse and visualize the rover activities, I really wanted to be one of the people using it in flight. Unfortunately, only three members of the team were selected to be Rover Planners (a job title we believe was chosen in place of Rover Drivers to make the job sound very boring and reduce competition for it). I was not one of them.

I was originally slated to be a downlink analyst looking at the telemetry from the rover to assess the driving and arm operations. This entailed months of training to learn how to run somebody else’s software, a much more difficult task than using your own. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for someone else, a position opened up on the Rover Planner team and I was transferred over. This entailed more months of training to learn the procedures, but the fuse was very short since Spirit was careening towards its landing. The fact that I knew the software tools already was the saving grace that allowed me to be ready to go on landing day.

Looking back on these six years, I’m tired, but amazed, when I think about how much we’ve accomplished and continue to accomplish. During the prime mission, I remember hearing Steve Squyres say how much we would like Spirit to go explore the hills in the distance but that we would never get there. Well, we have driven to the top of those hills and down the other side.

I remember when Opportunity drove into Purgatory and the Rover Planners immediately said that we needed to back out of the sand dune. After months of testbed activities and review, the decision was made to back out of the sand dune. I can remember looking over at Scott Maxwell, another Rover Planner, and saying to each other “This is so cool!!” (We still say that).

Some of my favorite memories are of giving talks to school kids about what I do, though one of my saddest was being asked by one of the kids, an honor student, if the moon landings were faked. I especially enjoyed calling up Car Talk and asking the guys how to keep our electric vehicle running through the winter on Mars. I laugh when I think about a recent talk I had with Scott when the right front wheel of Spirit seemed to work again after four years of being dragged around. Scott said he didn’t know if we were driving with six wheels or only five. Immediately I jumped in, Dirty Harry-style, with, “I know what you’re thinking punk. Are we driving with six wheels or only five? To tell the truth, I don’t know myself. The question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya’, punk?”

As we work on getting Spirit out of the current sand trap, I feel manic-depressive about our chances. One day I am sure we will have no problem but the next day I am equally convinced that all is lost. This is about the toughest situation we have ever had to get out of. When we are stuck, it seems as if we are always running out of daylight, which translates to power. It happened at Tyrone, it happened at Tartarus, and it has happened at Troy.

Hmmm, maybe we should stop giving names to locations that start with T.