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Rovers Landing Team Leader Recalls Tension and Triumph
01.03.05
 
A year after Spirit and Opportunity made their dramatic arrivals on Mars, the man who led the landing team looks back on a job well done.

Rob Manning celebrates first pictures from Spirit. NASA Photo/Bill Ingalls Rob Manning is the chief engineer of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. A year ago, he was sweating out the landing of the Spirit rover as the leader of the Rovers' Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team.

Image left: Manning cheers along with other team members as the first images from the Spirit rover come back from Mars.Click for Larger Image. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Manning, who grew up "living a Huckleberry Finn's life" in northwest Washington State, says he was a "mediocre student" whose "interest in math and science in the classroom didn't exactly explode." But a curiosity about space exploration eventually led him to Whitman College, Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on spacecraft computer systems. "I really enjoyed the thought that I might be able to make spacecraft as intelligent as 'HAL' from '2001: A Space Odyssey," he says.

He went on to work on the landing system for the Mars Pathfinder mission before moving on to the Mars Exploration Rovers. A year after Spirit and Opportunity touched down on the red planet, Manning talked with NASA.gov about the dramatic events.

Q: The Entry, Descent and Landing phase of the rover mission has been called "six minutes of terror." Just how tense was it?

In reality of course, the stress lasts much longer than six minutes. On Spirit's landing day on Jan. 3, we were still reeling from the discovery of a serious design error from a couple of days earlier. We were also closely watching the development of a global dust storm on Mars. In fact an aura of gloom hung throughout mostly because NASA had (rightly) been actively downplaying the chances of success. It was important however that the team not lose their spirits.

Q: How did people in the control room break the tension?

It has now become customary to play a song in the mission support area prior to a major spacecraft event. So, in part to comment on the pervasively low expectations as well as to buoy the team, we played "Don't Worry Be Happy." It seemed to work.

Q: How serious was the problem you discovered on Spirit just before landing?

{There was} a communication error between the rover and the lander. In the failed test cases, the airbags did not inflate and the rockets did not fire. That would be bad. We guessed that the chances that this failure would occur were about one in ten unless we did something to prevent it.

"Mars is not just a place, it is a place with a complex and intriguing history that parallels our life-history on Earth in many ways and undoubtedly has many more surprises for us." -- Rob Manning
Our software chief engineer pointed out the obvious by suggesting that we simply send commands {manually} rather than rely on the software to do it .... By the morning of landing we were completely convinced that the fix was the right thing to do. Finally less than four hours before landing we sent those commands. Of course it worked.

Q: What was the scariest moment for you?

I was feeling pretty good throughout the landing, but there was one scary moment.

We could not get {data} directly out of the vehicle during {landing}. Instead we sent radio tones that stood for a particular event or state (think of the colors used to talk to the alien craft in the movie "Close Encounters").

As the rover descended inside the lander on the parachute I was surprised at how strong the signal was and how well the tones were working. Less than a minute later we could see that the rover was reporting that it had locked onto the ground.

The next big events were airbag inflation and rocket firing. I see the signal while the airbag is bouncing but a second or two later the signal vanishes. Everyone in the mission support area starts to scream with excitement, but I get a sudden chill down my back. We strain our eyes at the plots, hoping the signal would return.

I try to sober the crowd by telling them the signal is gone and that they should stand by. I guessed from the hush that they could tell by the tone of my voice that I was worried.

As the seconds count on I begin to breathe hard. Fifteen minutes pass ... . I start to think that the {work-around} that we implemented only 3 or 4 long hours ago may not have worked and maybe the airbags did not inflate.

Finally 17 minutes go by and EDL Communication Engineer Dr. Polly Estabrook yells "Look! I can see the carrier!!" Pandemonium breaks out. I am exhausted and I have nothing left to say. All I feel is relief.

Rob Manning at Opportunity briefing. NASA Photo/Bill Ingalls Image above: Manning explains Opportunity's arrival during a pre-landing press briefing.Click for Larger Image. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Q: What was the most exhilarating moment? When did you finally catch your breath?

Despite the hellish 17 minutes on Spirit's landing, the second landing of Opportunity was even more worrisome for me. We had just figured out that Spirit was not lost that very morning and the mood of most folks was very high. Too high.

What if Opportunity failed? What if Spirit was not recovered? We would be zero for two and the negative consequences would be huge, starting with the team. A failure would rob them of their spirit and drive.

When the signal from Opportunity came almost immediately at landing I could barley contain my sense of relief. I ... felt three and a half years of stress melt away.

Within an hour I was at home with my family cheering the landing {as I watched my colleagues cheer the first photos.} I caught my breath right then.

Q: What's the future of Mars Exploration?

Our view of Mars has been radically altered. It is not just a place, it is a place with a complex and intriguing history that parallels our life-history on Earth in many ways and undoubtedly has many more surprises for us. While nothing we know of can compare with Earth's amazing, and somewhat illusive, life story, Mars' new possibilities for life are likely to put our world's story in context.

I hope that in the coming years {we will be} closer to the vision of people walking and working on Mars.

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