(Mars wind as recorded by Perseverance rover)
[0:04] Narrator: Listen closely. Do you hear that?
(Mars wind as recorded by Perseverance rover)
Narrator: That’s the sound of wind… on Mars. This wind blew past Perseverance rover, a six-wheeled vehicle driving on Mars today. The rover has two microphones that allow us, for the first time, to hear what it would be like to stand on the surface of this alien planet.
(Mars wind as recorded by Perseverance rover)
[0:35] Narrator: Mars has no birds or insects, no rustling trees, no thunderstorms or babbling brooks or crashing ocean waves. The only regular source of noise is wind gusting through the Martian desert. The supreme silence of Mars is literally un-Earthly.
In another desert many millions of miles away, on Earth, stark white radio antenna dishes crane up toward the sky.
[1:09] Narrator: These giant mechanical ears are listening for signals sent to us by our Mars rovers, their data streaming silently from there to here through the vast, empty distance of space.
The Goldstone Antenna Facility in California’s Mojave Desert is part of the Deep Space Network, the DSN, a collection of radio dishes that whisper messages out to robotic spacecraft, and then listen carefully for their reply.
(sound effect: radio static)
[1:43] Narrator: DSN antenna facilities also are in Canberra, Australia and Madrid, Spain. By having radio antennas scattered across the globe, we can maintain a steady connection to our missions, including the Mars rovers, as Earth orbits around the Sun.
(sound effect: radio static)
[2:03] Narrator: Data from all the DSN stations is piped into and sent out from Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
Narrator: NASA has sent five rovers to Mars. Starting in 1997 was the little microwave-oven-sized rover, Sojourner.
Narrator: Two golf-cart-sized rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, arrived on Mars in 2004.
[2:33] Narrator: Then came the car-sized Curiosity rover in 2012, and Perseverance rover in 2021.
A day in the life of a Mars rover goes something like this:
(sound effect: digital data stream, robot)
Narrator: After a night of deep sleep under cold, star-dazzled skies, a wake-up call arouses you in time to see the sky growing lighter. The sunrise looks blue at first, but as the Sun climbs higher, the sky gradually shifts to yellowy-butterscotch and orangey-pink.
[3:08] You announce you’re awake and feeling fine by calling out a long hello. (sound effect: digital data stream)
Narrator: This message travels from your antenna up to a satellite circling Mars, which then sends it all the way to Earth. Now you wait for the day’s instructions to arrive. It takes time for messages to travel between Earth and Mars, depending on where each planet is in its orbit around the Sun. Today, that delay is about 30 minutes – 15 minutes for your message to reach Earth, and another 15 minutes for the reply to reach you.
(Mars wind as recorded by Perseverance rover)
[3:43] Narrator: As you sit in the early morning stillness, you contemplate the horizon – the red rock valleys, craters and mountains beckon to your spirit for exploration. You think you spot a dust devil in the distance, a mini-tornado spun up from the fine grit of Mars sand, tracing a lazy finger across the desert floor.
Finally, your instructions come, (sound effect: digital data stream, robot)a string of ones and zeros that will direct your actions over the next 24-and-a-half hours – the length of one Martian day, also known as a “sol”.
[4:23] You send another signal to confirm you heard the message (sound effect: digital data stream), and then you begin to move, your gears, wheels and other mechanical parts breaking the pure silence of this barren world.
(Perseverance moving on Mars, as recorded by the rover]
Narrator: By late afternoon, you’ve driven over rugged terrain, taken photos of landscapes never seen before, maybe even drilled into a rock to taste what it’s made of. You put together a reconnaissance report and send it out. (sound effect: digital data stream)You know the folks on Earth are eager to hear how your day went.
[5:00] The day was always freezing, but it’s now getting colder by the minute, and the sky is darkening back to blue as the Sun dips toward the west. The first star that pops out in this evening’s sky isn’t a star at all – it’s planet Earth. The place where you were born; the beacon that guides all the days of your lonesome life on Mars.
[5:57] Narrator: Welcome to “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m Leslie Mullen, a science journalist at JPL. In this fourth season of the podcast, we’re going to sit behind the wheel of NASA rovers on Mars. This is episode one, “Driven to Mars.”
[6:18] Narrator: The basic definition of a rover is a remote-controlled robot with wheels. Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity rovers each had their drives under the Sun. They’re now quiet and still, standing as permanent markers of our past Mars explorations. Curiosity rover, though, is still on the go after nearly a decade, and Perseverance rover’s mission has only just begun.
[6:47] Over the next few episodes, we’re going to meet the rovers – they each have different personalities, different life stories. We’re going to learn whywe keep driving rovers around the fourth rock from the Sun – beyond the sheer “cool” factor of it – and what sort of challenges we’ve had to overcome to make this kind of exploration possible.
[7:08] Each Mars rover was built at JPL, and with every new build, the challenges of previous missions were taken into account, changing the rover’s design in a kind of robotic evolution. For instance, not every rover could receive instructions for an entire day and then be left alone to carry them out. The first rovers had to be guided step-by-step.
Here’s Jennifer Trosper, an engineer who’s worked on all five of NASA’s Mars rovers.
[7:39] Jennifer Trosper: When we had to deploy Sojourner off of the lander, it was very interactive. We were sending data back and forth; we were using the data to command the next thing. And the same thing with Spirit and Opportunity, in order to get rovers off the lander, very interactive. We had a week of interactive commanding to stand up the rover, to deploy the ramps, to drive the rover down the ramps.
[8:00] Narrator: Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity all had airbag landings, a playful bounce across the Martian surface that eventually rolled to a stop. At that point, the airbags deflated, and the landing platform opened its petals, like a flower unfurling, revealing the rover hidden inside.
[8:21] Jennifer Trosper:On Spirit, we actually had to lift up one of the petals and roll back the airbags a little bit and then put the petal back down because we were worried we were going to get a wheel of the rover stuck on the airbag when we were driving down the ramp. And then you had 15 minutes one-way light time where you’d send a command, and then, 30 minutes later, you’d get some results from the vehicle.
Narrator: Nowadays, we use satellites that orbit Mars as part of a communications chain to the rovers. You’d think that a direct Mission-Control-to-rover chat would be better, more immediate. But it takes a lot of power to beam data from the surface of Mars to Earth, even for very short messages. By using orbiters as relay stations, more data could be sent using far less energy.
[9:05] Jennifer Trosper:On Spirit and Opportunity, we had more data that we were accumulating on board, and we had orbiters at Mars: Odyssey was there, and Mars Global Surveyor was there. So on Spirit and Opportunity, we sort of toe-dipped into the UHF, this antenna on the rover that communicates with orbiters that then send data back to Earth.
[9:25] And that got us to this place where we would send up the plan for the day, the whole day, and then it would be communicated through the orbiters. And the UHF relay was fantastic. It had so much more data capacity than the direct-to-Earth link. So when we got these better imagers on the vehicles, the only way to get that data back to Earth, for low energy, was to send it through these UHF links.
So the UHF links have transformed Mars operations, and the way we do it, and the types of instruments we’re able to have on the vehicles. And then as we get to Perseverance, our UHF capability… I mean, we have passes that have a gigabit of data, and we are able to use have all these high-resolution cameras and just send amazing data down to Earth.
[10:13] Narrator:This change in how we talk to the rovers also means the rovers have to figure out what to do if they come across something we hadn’t expected. So each rover has progressively gotten smarter, using artificial intelligence to help find its way on Mars.
Jennifer Trosper:Clearly, we can’t drive the rover like you drive a remote-controlled car on Earth, because of the time delays. If you have that time delay, you could drive off a cliff or whatever, so we put in autonomous navigation for the rovers.
[10:46] What we originally were doing was just using the images that came down to Earth, and then we were designating a drive. And that means we have a rover planner who works on Earth, looks at the images, and then decides the path that the rover should take. And very explicitly tells the rover which direction to drive and when to stop, and then we would send that up to the vehicle. And that works when you have images. But as you wanted to drive further, you didn’t have good image resolution. And you also had errors that would accumulate.
[11:19] And so that’s where auto-navigation comes in, where your rover gets smarter. You put in algorithms that tell it the final end point, and then you say, “But don’t drive over a rock bigger than this,” and you put in some constraints on where it can go, and then it builds its own map and follows those constraints and drives itself. And it makes it able to drive further on any given day.
(Sound: Perseverance driving on Mars)
[11:50] Jennifer Trosper:You know, it’s almost like going from having a toddler, to having a teenager, and then a young adult. You give them more leeway, and they have to make their own decisions, and you hope you’ve given them the tools to make good decisions. You’re making them more and more independent, which is great.
My idea of operations, in the end, is pushing the “do mission” button and seeing how it does. But so far, we’re not quite there.
[12:21] Narrator:Jennifer’s path to working on Mars rovers wasn’t straightforward. She grew up on a farm in Ohio, among fields of soybeans, corn, and wheat. She played sports and the piano and, for a time, dreamed of being a concert pianist. But she also loved science and math, and was intrigued by stories her dad told about developing rockets for the Army Corp of Engineers in the 1950s.
After high school, Jennifer went to MIT to study aerospace engineering, and then accepted an offer to work at JPL.
[12:59] Jennifer Trosper:I was very content here. I was living in Southern California doing my dream job. I couldn’t even imagine that I was an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory doing space exploration. It seemed unreal. And I was really having a lot of fun.
I actually had switched cars with a friend who hurt her knee, and I was driving around in her Mazda Miata convertible. And I was driving to a volleyball tournament one day, grass volleyball. I played volleyball so much, I loved it. You know, my life was great.
[13:31] Narrator:Despite this sunny prospect, doubts arising from her religious upbringing began to cloud her view.
Jennifer Trosper: I remember thinking, it’s not clear to me that I need to have faith. And that faith is even real, and is God really real? Because I had been raised in the church. And so, was it just because my parents had said that I should have faith? And that’s when I thought I needed to take a chance. I needed to say, “Okay, God, if you’re real, then I need you to show yourself to me.” And to me, it felt like that meant I had to step out of my comfort zone.
[14:07] And so that’s when I took the leave of absence from JPL. I went to Ukraine; we were there as English teachers. And then for anybody who was interested, we also did Bible studies. But I had to give up a lot of things and just sort of say, “Okay, I trust, God, if you’re real, you’re going to help this all work out.”
My parents about lost their minds. They’re like, “We just spent our entire retirement to get you a degree from MIT in aerospace engineering, and you’re going to go be an English teacher? In Ukraine? Are you kidding me?” But in the end, I mean, my parents have always been super supportive. My mom would always say, “Oh little Jenny. She always lands on her feet, no matter what!”
[14:44] Narrator: Jennifer took an extraordinary leap of faith, but it wasn’t done blindly.
Jennifer Trosper:One time during college, I actually went to Peru and worked in the Amazon jungle at a camp for homeless children, building cabins for them. And I experienced that the giving of myself was very fulfilling for me. And so, because I had the experience in my past, I wanted to invest in something besides my own selfish ambition.
[15:17]Jennifer Trosper:And so I went with three other women, and this was the early 90s. It was crazy. The Soviet Union, you know, had fallen apart in the late 80s, and Ukraine was where we went, but we were actually in the Crimea on the Black Sea, in a closed military city called Sevastopol. That city was Soviet and Russian to the core. There were two schools we were teaching at. One was a public school, школа сорок три, school 43. And the other one was a business school.
The guy I worked for was clearly mafia; we didn’t know it at the beginning. And the mafia, the church, the government, they were all kind of indistinguishable. Anyway, the president of the church bank got shot and killed just down the hall from where I was teaching my students.
[16:04] (impact sound effect, music ends)
And so we ended up pulling out of that school halfway through the year, and we taught them at a different location. And because it was before a lot of the communication things we do today, like the internet and all the social media, I mean, we were pretty isolated. And it was a very hard thing for me.
[16:27] And I just thought, “What have I done with my life?” Right? If I contrast that to the red convertible Mazda Miata driving to a grass volleyball tournament in California, it was just this huge difference. Many times I thought, “Why did I give up this nice, comfortable life to come here in the cold and be possibly in danger with the job I had?” And, you know, in some cases, it didn’t seem like we were appreciated. And people actually thought we were there because we couldn’t find husbands in the United States, and so we had to travel there to find husbands.
[17:05] But it was a unique opportunity, because they’d been under Communism for a hundred years, and they really hadn’t heard the Bible. And from my perspective, I think everybody should have that opportunity to make a choice for themselves. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a free choice that you get to make.
[17:23] And so, I felt like we were able to bring some hope for the future, for some of the people.
(music picks up again)
Jennifer Trosper:And a lot of these folks, they’d worked their whole lives under Communism. They invested all their rubles. And then when Communism fell, they lost everything. And so they were 50, 60, and they would come up to me and they would say, “Give hope to my children. There’s no more hope for me.” It was just a very difficult time for them, and a very hopeless time as what they had believed in for so many years just kind of collapsed around them.
[17:53] But the people were beautiful, and they were super generous. Our students loved having us come over, and they would spend their entire month’s salary feeding us. For me, it was a time where I saw the transformational power of the gospel in people’s lives. And so, it really kind of re-invigorated my faith, not just because God was there with me, but because I was sacrificing myself, and I saw just these huge blessings because of that sacrifice.
Narrator: After Jennifer finished teaching the school year, she traveled around Europe with some friends, and also reached out to one of her mentors at JPL.
[18:33] Jennifer Trosper:I sent a postcard to Joe Savino, who was at the time in the electronics division; he was the chief engineer there. I said, “Hey, I’m done with my year here in Ukraine. I’m interested in coming back to JPL. Do you have any jobs there for me?” I had taken a leave of absence from JPL, but that leave of absence had no guarantee of a job when I got back.
And the day I got home to our farm in Ohio, I got a phone call from Joe, and he said, “Jennifer, we have this new mission that we’re trying to recruit people for. It’s called Mars Pathfinder.”
[19:08] Narrator: Pathfinder was NASA’s first “Faster, Better, Cheaper” mission; a departure from the more traditional way of spending a lot of money on one big space mission that took a decade or more to develop and launch. This new approach would build a range of low-cost missions on tighter schedules.
[19:27] Jennifer Trosper: We were intentionally trying to do things as simply as possible, so we had a small team. We limited the documentation. We had much more informal discussions and decision-making processes. We still did some of the basic processes that you have to do to make sure that you’re designing and building something correct. We had design reviews and they were pretty intense. But if I wanted to make a choice about my system and how I was doing it, I certainly was empowered to do that.
[20:00] These days we have, gosh, hundreds of thousands of verification items that we have to make sure have been tested on the rover and we track those, because the systems have grown to be so complex. Back on Pathfinder, I was in charge of testing sequencing. And so, I put together what I thought was a good test plan, and at the end of it, I said, “Yeah, sequencing works!”
[20:24] Narrator: Pathfinder was to be NASA’s first lander on Mars in over 20 years, since the twin Viking landers in 1976. Pathfinder carried the small Sojourner rover, and because this was the first rover NASA had ever sent to Mars, Sojourner was dubbed a technology demonstration, a “let’s see if this is even possible” add-on. Sojourner’s main job was to show whether or not we coulddrive a vehicle on Mars from millions of miles away.
[20:55] (CNN coverage: July 4, 1997 Pathfinder landing)CNN Announcer: “Thanks for joining us, this is one of those moments scientists have been waiting for. Like nervous parents, they’ve been watching the Mars Pathfinder move through millions of kilometers of space, headed to the Red Planet. And right now, the spacecraft should be approaching its final…”
[21:09] Narrator: Pathfinder and Sojourner arrived on Mars on the fourth of July, 1997.
(CNN coverage: July 4, 1997 Pathfinder landing)(applause)News commentary:“The signal’s been received, it means that the spacecraft is intact, at least it has enough information…”
Jennifer Trosper: It was broadcast on CNN, so lots of people were watching it. And the landing happened and we all cheered because we got the images back and we were so excited that it successfully landed. And there wasn’t necessarily even an expectation that it would work. I think that’s part of what made it so exciting when it did.
[21:40] And we printed out the very first image that we got that day, which was a picture of the rover sitting there on the deck, and then the Martian terrain that we saw at our landing site. And I had that image on the steering wheel as I was driving home. And I think it just started to hit me that we were actually on Mars, operating this vehicle. And until then, it just didn’t seem real.
[22:07] I was tired when I got home, and (it was) just a few hours before I had to be back at work again, but my dad was so excited and so beside himself. He and my mom had flown out here for the landing and they were staying at my house. And he wanted to talk, talk, talk. He had taken so many pictures of me on CNN, so snapshots of pictures of me on TV. And he had taped everything, and was so excited. And for me, it was great to be able to have them there, but, yeah, I was pretty tired. And I’m like, “I got to go back to work. So I’ll talk tomorrow!”
[22:41] Narrator: Thanks to the media coverage of the landing, Jennifer became a sudden celebrity.
Jennifer Trosper:I guess they played CNN in the prisons or something; there were a lot of letters that I got delivered to me by JPL Security because they were from prisoners. And then we also got letters from people who just wanted to go to Mars. They were so excited about it. They’d say, “Send me! I don’t even care if I come back. This would be such a great way to go!” So all kinds of people excited about the mission and just wanting to engage with us, so it was really fun.
[23:12] And one of the things that happened was somebody wrote in to Parade magazine and asked a question, “Who was that girl that was leading the operations on landing day? I’d like to know more about her.” And so, I called it my two inches from fame, because there was a question about Sandra Bullock and her picture and a write-up, and then two inches over from that, there was a question about me and my picture and a write-up. So I was on the same page as Sandra Bullock.
[23:39] After that magazine went out in everybody’s Sunday morning paper, I did get several letters regarding that article, and one of them came from a lady in Dallas, Texas. She just wrote a really nice letter saying she was proud of the work that we did. She thought that space exploration was so exciting, and that she also thought that the missionary work I had done was very exciting, and commended me on spending time doing that. And then the second part of the letter said, “And I have a son who’s in the Air Force who might want to take a tour of JPL sometime. Would you be interested in giving him a tour?”
[24:18] To me, you know, it seemed like it was kind of a total set-up, so I always joke that I put that letter in the ones from the state prisoners, filed it off to the side. But I also came to a point where I did feel a responsibility to answer all the letters as best I could. And so, I wrote back to this lady and I said, “Thank you for your letter. Yes, it’s exciting work. And if your son is in town, I’m happy to give him a tour of JPL.”
[24:46] And I had been traveling right before he was going to be in town, and I was very tired. And he sent me a note and said, “You’ll be able to recognize me because I’ll be the tall, skinny guy with the big nose.” And I was just kind of lamenting to my friend, I’m like, “Oh, man, his mom is getting him set up with me, and I just don’t want to do this.” And, “Why do I have to do this? I’m so tired.” And so, I actually pushed it back a couple hours.
[25:12] Well, it turns out that I really enjoyed him, and he was a great guy. And he was so embarrassed about his mom writing the letter. But he also was so interested in space that he was willing to kind of move through that and get the tour. So I took him on a tour. We actually went out to dinner that night later and swapped stories. And about two years later, we were married.
[25:38] Jennifer Trosper:It was an interesting time for me. My dad had been diagnosed with a pretty aggressive cancer. Well, my dad passed away in this time frame. And it was very difficult for me. I missed my dad. He was kind of my rock for a lot of things, in particular for the work that I did. And I really felt like this was God saying, “Okay, we’re going to transition,” and when people ask me how I met my husband, I say, “By the power and grace of God.”
[26:06] Narrator:This transition in Jennifer’s life took place while NASA was dealing with the loss of two “Faster, Better, Cheaper” missions to Mars. A satellite, Mars Climate Orbiter, suffered a navigation instruction error as it approached Mars, and either burned up or skipped off the top of the atmosphere. Soon after that, Mars Polar Lander crashed while attempting to reach the planet’s surface.
[26:30] Jennifer Trosper:We lost two missions right next to each other. Because of the failures of those, that’s what brought Spirit and Opportunity about. There was a discussion about what to do next, and then there was this idea that you could put a bigger rover inside of the landing system of Mars Pathfinder, with the airbag landing and the petals, only that being grown a little bit. Because we’d had problems before and we wanted to make sure this one worked, we made two of them, redundancy.
[27:07] Narrator: Spirit and Opportunity were not only bigger and heavier than Sojourner, they had instruments designed to hunt for clues of water in the rocks of Mars, because, on Earth at least, wherever there is water, there is life.
(Spirit rover landing day, JPL Mission Control)(applause)“Hold that…”
“We have positive…
“We got green light…”
“The strength of the signal indicates we are bouncing on the surface of Mars. This is a very good sign.”
[27:31] Narrator: Spirit landed on January 4, 2004, three weeks before Opportunity was due to arrive on the opposite side of Mars. Spirit set down in Gusev, a 100-mile-wide impact crater that scientists thought might have once held an ancient lake. But instead of the old lakebed sediments scientists had hoped to find, Spirit showed that Gusev’s crater floor was mostly made of dry volcanic rocks.
[27:59] Jennifer Trosper: Spirit landed at a site that was more difficult. I grew up in Ohio and the winters are hard. And I felt like Spirit — maybe because Spirit was mine; I was the mission manager for Spirit — I felt like Spirit was the kid that grew up in Northwest Ohio, and just had a lot of challenges because of the different things that she had to deal with. Spirit had so many troubles. We had an anomaly on sol 18 that was pretty significant, and we thought we lost the vehicle.
[28:32] Narrator: 18 Martian days after Spirit landed, its computer developed a potentially catastrophic problem.
Jennifer Trosper: That sol 18 anomaly, I don’t know how many years it took off my life. I happened to be the tactical mission manager that day, and we had a problem with the sequence. We were actually trying to get a bunch of data products from the high gain antenna because we had seen some oddities in the mechanism movements. And I remember going in and kind of hand editing it to modify something. And I was sitting there with the flight director, and we were sending down all these data products, and then it ended before the session was supposed to end, abruptly.
(abrupt music end)
[29:13] Jennifer Trosper: You know, in the back of my head was, “Oh, I hand edited that sequence right before we put it up. Was it something I did?” And then, you know, whenever you lose data like that, you always look to the Deep Space Network and say, “Hey, w-w-was it you? (laughs) Did you have rain in Spain? Was there something that caused you to drop our data?” Because you hate to think it’s the rover, but in this case, it was the rover.
[29:34] And then I remember the next direct-to-Earth session, we got a signal, but no data. And so it was kind of a ‘lights on, nobody’s home.’ And it took us about a week, I think, to figure out what had gone wrong, because we weren’t able to get it to talk to us for a few days. And then we got a command in, and when we got data, we only got half a packet, but when we decoded it, the time stamp was a year way in the future. And that was an indicator to us that what had gone wrong was that we’d got in a continuous reset cycle because the flash file system had a problem. And then we had a hardware command, and that command was able to take the flash file system offline.
[30:21] Mind you, we’re doing this all in the blind. The only thing it’s given us is like half of this packet of a year in the future, which gave us a little clue that it was not doing well. So we ended up reformatting the flash. We understood the problem. We fixed it on Opportunity before she landed, but we were a week from Opportunity landing, and trying to make sure we weren’t going to have the same problem on Opportunity.
So it was stressful. I don’t think I went home for four or five days. And I was sleeping on a cot in my office. I remember somebody telling me that they had seen a comment on some post about how I had darkened the roots of my hair and that that was pretty cool. But the thing was, I just hadn’t washed it in like four days. (laughs)
[31:07] Jennifer Trosper: You know, after you go through a few of those things, you become much more conservative about how you operate your rovers on Mars. You know that it can go very bad, very quickly.
Narrator: Spirit encountered many more challenges on its journey, including a broken wheel that the rover had to drag behind it to keep going. Six years into what was originally a 90-day mission, Spirit finally gave up the ghost after getting mired for many months in a sand trap.
[31:38] During their missions, Spirit and Opportunity both found evidence of past water on Mars, but by then, Jennifer had moved on to NASA Headquarters in Washington DC, to run a study on what would be needed to send humans back to the Moon and to Mars. Five years later, though, she was back at JPL, working on the next Mars rover, Curiosity.
[32:01] Jennifer Trosper:I transitioned over more towards the end of Curiosity, versus how I had been in Pathfinder and Spirit and Opportunity, where I did the full development cycle. So when I got to Curiosity, we were probably a year from launch.
Curiosity is a beast. And the beast needed a lot of care and feeding. And since the vehicle was so much more complicated than Spirit and Opportunity, both from an instruments point of view, from a sampling point of view, making sure the vehicle was working was a huge thing in and of itself. And so, I focused on that to make sure that we could confirm and understand how the vehicle was working after we landed, and then begin the mission.
[32:46] Narrator: Curiosity’s mission is to discover if Mars ever had an environment that was habitable for life. In other words, does Mars have all of the basic chemical elements that life on Earth needs to survive, like carbon, phosphorus, and nitrogen? Figuring this out would require the rover to carry a suite of sophisticated scientific instruments. In fact, before the rover was named “Curiosity,” the mission was called, “Mars Science Laboratory.”
Jennifer led Curiosity operations as mission manager.
[33:20] Jennifer Trosper:The mission managers figure out what the plans are. They solve the anomalies. They make sure that we are making progress. We work on the operations system, the processes, the people, the training — some of these positions can take six months to a year to train, like how to use the robotic arm on Curiosity and be a rover planner or a rover driver.
It’s interesting when you get to vehicles as complex as this, and then you add a Martian environment, and then you add a bunch of orbiters, and then you add a team of people… it’s almost death by a thousand cuts, where you’re trying to do something, and then just one of those things is not quite right. It could be that the person you need to drill on a given day is on vacation, or it could be that you just saw, like there was something on the ground one sol, and we knew it had come from the rover because it certainly wasn’t of Martian origin, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. And so we spent a couple of days looking at it thinking, well, it’d be good to know where it came from. To this day, we’re not sure what it was. And then you’re like, okay, well, let’s not waste more time here, because the vehicle seems to be operating fine.
[34:31] And there are thousands of things like that. And each day you run into those things. But that’s what makes it fun. I’m a problem solver and I’m a team player, and I love the fact that it takes all these people to do these missions.
And then, (laughs) I think about growing up in Ohio, one of my summer jobs was weeding the bean field. 50 acres of beans, and you got to pull out all the weeds. You know, it’s this huge task. And sometimes you don’t know where to start. And I would always just say, “Well, you go to where the biggest patch of weeds are, and you just start pulling them out.”
[35:06] And that’s a little bit about how I do my job at JPL, where you come up with this hugely complex system. And there are lots of things that aren’t quite going right. And you’re not even sure where to start. And I will always tell people, you know, start with the biggest patch of weeds and solve some problem. It may not even be the right problem, but if you never get to the point where you can just begin moving forward, which is often the problem with some of these complex systems, then you’re never going to make progress. And we can get stuck, and getting stuck is one of the worst things that can happen.
[35:42] Narrator:Before Jennifer joined the Curiosity team, her problem-solving strategy and her faith were both put to the test in her personal life.
Jennifer Trosper: So my very first child I was pregnant with when we moved to Washington DC, and early on in the pregnancy, we kind of knew there were some things that weren’t quite right. She had a heart defect, kidneys that may or may not have been working in utero. I mean, it’s almost like you name it, we were diagnosed with it at some level. But my husband and I, because we were both people of faith, decided well, let’s just pray for her.
[36:20] And I actually had little cards printed out with the things that the doctors told me were wrong. And so if anybody ever wanted to pray for her, I specifically gave them the bulleted list of things that you should be praying for. (laughs) I remember one of my JPL friends was like, “Oh, that’s so Jennifer, right? She’s just going to say, ‘Do this, do that, do that.’”
And we talked to the doctors and sometimes, because we were hopeful, the doctors would say, “We’re not sure you guys understand what we’re saying. You know, she has a very rare genetic underlying condition and those kids don’t live. They don’t live to be born, and if they are born, then they just don’t live.” And we said, “Yeah, we understand, but we’re just going to pray for her, and we want you to do everything you can for her. And we’ll see how it all plays out.”
[37:00] And, I would say, by the power of God, she is 16 years old today. She has challenges. We’ve had heart surgeries and spine surgery, a number of different things. She actually speaks with an iPad. She has some fine motor issues that cause her to not be able to speak words. She makes sounds and things. But she is a smart young lady — and not that people with different abilities have to be smart, but she is. She has a great sense of humor. She loves horses, she rides horses, and she lives a beautiful life.
[37:35] And you know, it’s inspiring to me to see how she navigates her life. And I don’t feel sorry for her. She actually does really well. She has challenges, just like everybody has different challenges. There are days I kind of wish they weren’t so big. But you keep chipping away at it, right? Nothing’s impossible.
I think for a lot of my life, I always felt like in order to have that value as a person, you had to do, and you had to accomplish, and you had to go to the best school. I think it’s really encouraged me to look around me and find the value. Every person has value. We’re not all the same. We don’t all do the same things. We don’t all have the same abilities, but we all have value.
[38:22] Narrator: Many of the Mars missions Jennifer has worked on highlight recurring values and themes of her life: Pathfinder. Spirit. Curiosity. Perseverance.
Jennifer is currently project manager for the Perseverance rover. In appearance, Perseverance looks like a sibling of Curiosity, but it has a different task: to gather a variety of Mars rock and soil samples in a quest to find evidence of past life. To accomplish this, the team had to find ways to make Perseverance rover faster and more independent than Curiosity.
[39:00] Jennifer Trosper: The mission was required to collect five times as many samples and drive five times as far, so we went through and systematically looked at, what slowed Curiosity down? What things made it hard, and what things could we do to make it faster? And so, we came up with about 10 change requests.
[39:20] So one of them was a huge upgrade in auto navigation, so we could drive much further on any given day. So we’ll be pedal to the metal quickly here with our auto nav. Another thing that we did was add a lot of capability in the, again, back to the UHF systems, in our ability to compress data. So you basically can send more data on the same signal strength. We put that on the orbiters as well, so there was a lot of work that we did in just getting more data throughput through the system, and as evidenced by the, you know, hundred thousand images we’ve gotten to the ground, which is more than Curiosity has done so far.
[40:01] Jennifer Trosper: I feel like the Mars program has been able to take these years of investment and really get somewhere. Not just from the rovers themselves, where we go from Sojourner that was the size of a microwave oven, all the way up to Curiosity and Perseverance that are small car-sized, but also from the science, where we started with, was there ever water on Mars? And here we are, now looking at the bottom of an ancient lake bed for ancient microbial life. Just the arcs.
[40:33] And then I also think about the arc of the people. People like me, who’ve been on all five missions, but also people who are the next generation of folks who are going to build the next set of Mars missions, who now have started in a wholly different place of knowledge and capability and architecting and thinking. And so these arcs, for me, to just kind of look back across all of these rovers and see the science, the engineering, the people, it’s really neat to see how that’s played out.
[41:04] Narrator:Earth and Mars are connected – through similarities between the arid lands, through our radio communications, through the people who build the rovers and use them to create tracks on Mars that we both direct and follow.
Each rover has wandered alone in their vast kingdom of wind and rocks, desert nomads who could reveal the wisdom of the ages. You might say the rovers are seeking a kind of divine understanding: if we could find evidence of life on Mars, that could help answer our questions of how we came to be, and whether we’re alone in the universe.
[41:44] Jennifer Trosper:I’ve experienced a spiritual significance to the work that I do, in that I believe that there’s a God behind all of these things that we explore and see. And I don’t see science and faith in conflict at all. My faith is built up by the things that I see in our exploration of Mars, and of what we explore in our own solar system, and then some of these investigations of looking for planets that are like Earth. Just the vastness of the universe definitely increases my faith that there is a God.
[42:21]I’m definitely on a strong science side of how things got there. I see science as a very powerful tool to be used to understand the things around us. I feel like it’s a privilege to be a part of the scientific investigation of Mars and of the universe. And it’s also a privilege to be able to have that freedom to explore the spiritual dimension of life, and to have experienced that in a way that these two things can connect together for me.
[42:53] Narrator: We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow and rate us on your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to check out NASA’s other podcasts – they can all be found at NASA-dot-gov, forward slash, podcasts.
(Run time = 43:12)