Catching up with Scott…

Yet again, Mars rover driver/Road to Endeavour friend / all-round heroic guy Scott Maxwell has taken time out of his crazily-busy schedule to talk to me about what’s happening with Oppy at this exciting time. Lots of great info here, so grab yourself a coffee and a biccie, put your feet up, and read on…


We’re almost there, at Endeavour Crater’s edge! How did it feel when you saw Cape York peeping up from behind the horizon for the first time?

We’ve been on the road from Victoria to Endeavour for so long that it
feels normal — we come in, turn the crank on a drive, and go home.
Cape York is a reminder that that’s all about to change, and in a very
good way!  We’re about to go properly exploring again.

And this is a particularly exciting place to go exploring, what with
the phyllosilicates and smectites that will — we hope — let
Opportunity tell the story of hot, pH-neutral water at a long-ago
Meridiani Planum.  I’m no scientist, but I understand that we have
good evidence of that at the Gusev site already, and this would let us
say that there was probably at one point a globally habitable
environment on Mars.

How is Oppy at the moment? Fighting fit? Any concerns?

Just the usual concerns you have about aging hardware in an extremely hazardous, high-radiation environment.  The arm and the stuff on it still works, and the wheels can still put it where we need it to go, so we’ve got everything we need to tell the story of the Martian past. We need to be very patient — the Mossbauer, in particular, is a
painfully dim flashlight at this point — but we can do it.

Be honest, when Oppy set off from Victoria Crater all that time ago, turning her back on all those lovely outctrops, capes and exposed rock layers, did you really believe she’d reach Endeavour?

You of all people should know that I never bet against the rovers!

Yes, I really did think she’d make it.  I knew it would take a while,
but I also knew she’d come through for us.  And she sure has.

It’s become a bit of a cliche, saying that now Oppy is at Endeavour this is “like a whole new mission”, but how true is that? How will it be like a ‘new mission’ for the driving team?

Oh, yeah, definitely — and in some ways, it’ll be like an old
mission.  We’ve gone hill-climbing before (on Spirit), and we’ve gone
crater-diving before several times.  We should get to do all of that
and more at Endeavour, and do it all in a brand new place.  (I’ve also
been having members of the team revisit old sols, mostly at Endurance Crater and Husband Hill, so we’ll have some of those old techniques in our minds.  I’m a little worried that our skills at doing these things are rusty, and that should help us polish them up before we need them.)

Of course, this being a brand new place, we’re going to proceed
cautiously at first — it’s always possible that there are new
hazards, and it would truly suck to have spent all this time driving
here just to fall into a trap after a week.  So we’ll have to temper
our excitement with sound engineering judgment.  But we have room for a *little* excitement, I think.  🙂

What are you really looking forward to now we’re almost at Cape York, and about to make landfall? The chance for Oppy to go climbing, like Spirit did? The wide-angle vista views? A chance to develop new driving techniques, perhaps?

Frankly, at this point, things have been the same for so long that
*anything* different is good.  And it’ll be good for morale, too.

Going hill-climbing again will provoke a bit of nostalgia, and I can’t
*WAIT* for some of the color PANCAMs we’re going to take of the
Endeavour interior.  (Probably while we’re sitting still for a month
or two, waiting for Mossbauer results, at Cape York.  Yawn.)  But
certainly the most exciting part for me is the idea that we’re really
going exploring again, really seeing something new and interesting for
the first time in quite a while.  It’s been a long trip here, but I’m
confident we’re going to feel that Endeavour was worth the wait.

Obviously we have to mention Spirit. It’s a month now since we finally -if reluctantly – said goodbye to her, how are the team doing? I know you all had that “wake” for her, and there was that great celebration of her mission we all watched on NASA TV, too, but sat there, at your desks, in the quiet moments, how do you think of Spirit now?

Personally, I’m so proud of her I could just burst.  I miss her
terribly, and I wish I could be on Mars with her again, but she did
really, *really* well.  She fought hard, she overcame — she climbed a
mountain — and as a result of her struggle she got what she went to
Mars for, and then some.  It’s hard to be as sad as I know I ought to
be, when she gave us so much to be happy about.

As I said to the science team recently, the wake was lovely and
fitting, but the best celebration of Spirit’s life is that they’re
*still* talking about the science results she brought us — they had
several presentations on those results at the MER science team meeting last week.  And their grad students, and maybe *their* grad students, will keep doing that for years to come.  The best celebration of Spirit’s life is that, even though we’ll never get anything else new
from her, she just keeps on telling us more and more about Mars.  It’s
a hell of a legacy.

It’s almost an impossible request, I know, but if you had to pick one,  what would be your favourite Spirit moment?

I’ll cheat and pick three, in ascending order of awesomeness.

3. Nobody really cares about this but me, but the climb up into the
saddle of Comanche on sol A-697 was just tremendous.  Squyres didn’t like our first stab at it (and in retrospect he was — as always —
spot on), so we went back to the drawing board and replanned it late
in the day, and what we came up with was nuts and never should have worked, and of course it went *ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY*.  It’s possibly the single drive I’m most proud of — MER at its absolute, shining, tip-top finest.  The fact that the science results from Comanche were Spirit’s first evidence of pH-neutral water at the Gusev site is just delicious icing on an already super-yummy cake.

2. Cresting the summit of Husband Hill.  Getting there was a terrible
slog — painstaking, slow, frustrating, and exhilarating, all at the
same time, for months and months.  (That was nuts, too, climbing a
mountain — these rovers aren’t supposed to be able to do that.  Lucky thing nobody told Spirit.)  And suddenly, all that perseverance paid off — there we were, on top of a mountain, with the whole of Gusev Crater spread around us, ours for the taking.  That, too, is MER at its finest — creative, persistent, smart, willing to bend but
unwilling to yield.  Facing down Mars and winning.

1. Along about sol A-65, Spirit sent back the first-ever picture of
Earth from the surface of Mars.  We’re just a speck in the Martian sky — the evening star of Mars.  A quiet shining dot in the even quieter blackness.  I’ve tried and tried, but I feel I can never properly
communicate what a breathtaking, profound image that is, or how much it means to me.  It is an image of perspective.

Back to Oppy and happier thoughts! What have you learned about her, and about driving a rover on Mars, over the past 7 years?

One thing I’ve learned is, never take the rovers for granted.  Because
they see Mars from your perspective — with color, stereo vision, at
about your height — they’ll make you feel that you’re there.  But
when something goes wrong, you’re a hundred million miles away at the snap of your fingers.  You have to know that that distance can
suddenly *happen*, and guide everything you do with an eye toward
*not* letting it happen.  I always want to push the limits (I’m
notorious for this, on the MER team), but I invariably do it with that
in mind: it would be very easy to get into trouble we can’t get out
of, and I cannot let that happen.  Rover safety is always Job One.

As we approach Cape York, how far ahead have you planned Oppy’s exploration of Endeavour? You must have mapped out some strategy to “Follow the phyllosilicates!”, maybe head south to Cape Tribulation if Cape York doesn’t pan out?

Yep, Cape Tribulation or Botany Bay.  (I think that the science team
seems to prefer the latter, but I’m not sure I have that right.)  I’ve
detailed ace rover driver Frank Hartman (one of the original
Opportunity drivers, and still on the mission all these years later)
to work with the science team (Arvidson and others) to map that out.
Our basic plan is to skirt Cape York to the south, get some
ground-based images of the southeastern face, and then use those
images to decide whether we should go back around and then “up and
over,” or just head straight to the phyllosilicates from a point to
the southeast.

If you could go back in time 7 years and give your younger, rookie self some advice about handling the driving years ahead, what would it be? Anything you’d tell yourself to do differently?

I think the most important advice I would have for myself is to love
every second of it, to constantly glory in it and revel in it, as the
fulfillment of a childhood fantasy and simultaneously as the peak of a
professional career.  And fortunately, that’s exactly what I’ve done.
So I think I played this one okay.

You must have studied the HiRISE images of Cape York / Botany Bay to death by now. What have those images told you about the area? Any particular driving challenges?

Actually, it looks fairly good.  We have some concerns about the
inboard slopes on Cape York, since they’re south-facing at a time when we’re going to have to think about being on north-facing slopes, but we think we can find spots we’re happy with, so it’s not a huge
concern.  We’ll also have to work out the exact slopes when we get
there and base some of our driving decisions on what we see from the
ground, but it’s all stuff we can do.

At one point, I thought Cape York was tens of meters tall, but I was
so wrong — it’s just a few meters high, a lot more like Home Plate
than Husband Hill.  But elsewhere at Endeavour, we might get a chance for the kind of mountain climbing we haven’t seen for a while.

This is a difficult time for NASA: the shuttle era has just ended with no replacement ready to fly; the JWST is under threat of cancellation; budgets are being frozen, or cut, everywhere. Do you have any feeling of Oppy now “carrying the torch” for space exploration? Personally I can’t shake off the image of Oppy rolling across Mars alone, like that poor droid left tending the last remaining garden at the end of “Silent Running”…

I think MER has unquestionably been a bright spot for NASA, at a time when NASA has badly needed bright spots.  I want to say this very carefully, but it would be nice if NASA were always smart enough to put their money where their mouth is.  Of course, that’s the kind of thing your readers could write Congress about, if they were so inclined.

In any case, I know quite well how lucky I am to be able to be a part
of this mission.  Lots of stuff in my life doesn’t turn out quite how
I imagined it, but it sort of rhymes, and in a way that makes me
supremely happy.  I wanted to be an astronaut — and I’m not one, but I drive a Mars rover around.  I wanted to meet Carl Sagan, and I never did — but I work with Steve Squyres.  (Who is awesome beyond words, by the way.)  I dreamed of Apollo, and I got MER — and I love it.  I love it.

Finally… Curiosity… it all seems very real now, doesn’t it? We’ve spent years talking about the mission, watching MSL taking shape at JPL, but now suddenly she’s *this*close to launch, landing is only a year away, and we’re all breathlessly excited about the exploration of Gale Crater. Driving a laser-toting, nuclear-powered astrobilogical humvee through a martian Monument Valley before climbing a mountain… you fancy that? 😉

Well, we’ll see if that’s what I’m doing.  MSL hasn’t named its
driving team yet, and so I can’t know whether I’m on it.

Whoever’s driving MSL has some years of adventuring before them.  MER has set them an awfully high bar and we just keep raising it, and I like the idea that we’re setting a challenge for MSL to try to live up
to.  That’s what we oughta do, and by Jove, we’re doing it.

Thanks Scott!

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2 Responses to Catching up with Scott…

  1. Dude this is an awesome post… Aside from all the really fascinating stuff that’s discussed this is an excellent example of how NASA should be approaching their outreach programs. NASAs best asset (other than the excellent hardware) is it’s people, they are passionate about their jobs and anytime you give them a platform to talk about their work they will spread their passion and inspire new generations to continue exploring.

  2. Buck says:

    Oh, well done! These posts are as good as the photo posts!!

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