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True Grit on the Road to Mars

Season 1Nov 5, 2018

Space missions often defy the odds, overcoming all obstacles. The people who work on these missions also face challenges to get where they are today. Marleen Martinez Sundgaard, the testbed lead for InSight, personifies this tenacious spirit.

On a Mission podcast cover art

[0:03] Narrator: October 28, 2003. The Sun is stormy and agitated. It releases one of the most powerful solar flares ever recorded.

The flare shoots towards Earth, damaging some satellites and causing others to fail. GPS and communications are disrupted, astronauts on the International Space Station are told to take cover, and airlines are advised to fly at lower latitudes to avoid exposing crew and passengers to the intense radiation.

The solar flare travels beyond Earth, killing the MARIE instrument on the Odyssey satellite orbiting Mars. Two rovers – named Spirit and Opportunity – were on their way towards Mars, scheduled to land soon. As they were engulfed by the solar flare their star trackers failed, causing the spacecraft to lose attitude control. The spacecraft’s computer, one engineer told me, “was losing its mind.” Flight engineers shut the computers down, fearing memory chips were damaged, not knowing if they could bring the mission back to life.

[1:09] Intro music

[1:45] Narrator: We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m Leslie Mullen.

The engineers got lucky that day: The computers came back on and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004 as planned. The story of the 2003 solar flare is just one example of the hair-raising challenges every mission to outer space faces.

This season, I’ve been talking about the Mars InSight mission, which has had its share of overcoming obstacles and defying the odds. But it’s not just the technology; the people who work on these missions have faced their own challenges and series of obstacles to get where they are today. Space missions, and the people who work on them, need to have grit.

One person with this quality is Marleen Martinez Sundgaard. She’s in charge of the testbed for InSight. What is a testbed, you might ask?

[2:37] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: We have a team in the testbed whose job it is to make sure that we are able to run all of the sequences that we will run on Mars, here on Earth. It’s kind of like practice.

[2:49] Narrator: Three instruments sitting on the InSight lander have to be placed on the ground on Mars. To do that, a robot arm will pick each instrument up.

[2:56] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: So at the end of the robotic arm there’s a little grapple that looks like a finger claw in an arcade game, basically.

[3:02] Narrator: If you’ve ever tried to win a prize from the arcade claw game, you already know it’s not as easy as it sounds.

[3:08](Toy Story: “sector 12, who’s in charge here? “The CLAW!! The claw is our master. The claw chooses who will go and who will stay…)

[3:21] Narrator: The claw had a starring role in the movie Toy Story, when Woody and Buzz Lightyear ended up in an arcade game filled with little green alien squeak toys.

[3:29](Toy Story: “The claw, it moves. I have been chosen! Farewell my friends, I go on to a better place!”)

[3:42] Narrator: The goal for the robot claw on InSight is to hook on the instruments, and then gently place each one in front of the lander, on the Martian surface. This has never been done before. So Marleen’s team practices the delicate operation on Earth, again and again, perfecting each maneuver. But unlike the arcade game, they need to pick up that prize on a planet millions of miles away, where the very ground you stand on may handicap your efforts.

[4:09] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: There are scenarios where we set down on a tilt. On a 15-degree tilt, for example. And so, we’ll build a 15-degree workspace in front of the lander and then we’ll set the instrument down on that 15-degree workspace. And then, also, the instruments have tethers. They have power and telemetry tethers so that we can get our data back from the instruments. And sometimes these tethers will overlap.

[4:32] Narrator: As the robot arm is moving the instruments, what if their tethers get tangled up? What else might go wrong? By practicing every possibility, Marleen’s team works to avoid any mishaps. Because millions of miles away, on another planet, a mishap can mean the end of the mission.

[4:48] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: We practice everything multiple times and multiple scenarios. So that’s kind of what my job in the testbed is.

[4:59] Narrator: Marleen’s story begins back here on Earth, in the state of Washington.

[5:03] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: I was born and raised in a small town in eastern Washington called Warden, like a jail warden. My grandparents were migrant farm workers, my parents were migrant farm workers, and so they just moved around the country a lot and settled on Warden, Washington, which has a lot of potatoes. At one time I remember hearing a statistic where our county alone grew more potatoes than the state of Idaho. I started working in those potatoes when I was 13 years old.

We would work every summer. So, the rule in my parent’s house was that if you were in school you didn’t have to work. If you ever left school you had to work. Because they were forced to drop out of middle school and high school when they were young so that they could work to help support their families.

So when I was 13, 14, and 15 I worked in the fields. I would wake up at four o’clock in the morning, be out in the field by five, which is sunrise, and then work until about three in the afternoon. When I turned 16, I was old enough to work in a potato warehouse, which oddly enough was, I think, worse than working in the fields. Because in the warehouse I had to stand at this conveyor belt as potatoes were coming down the line, I would just stand there for two hours at a time straight with extremely loud machinery around me, just pulling weeds and rotten potatoes out of this conveyor line. I did that for a couple weeks and my father’s godmother was our supervisor, she would pull me off the line once a day to go do a quality check on the boxes. So I would grab a box off the conveyor belt and I would count how many potatoes were in it, and then I would go back to the conveyor line.

About two weeks in, I got moved to the weighing. There was a spot where the potatoes, as they were getting boxed, would get weighed. They needed to weigh 50 pounds, and then they could get glued closed and shipped off. So, my dad’s godmother moved me there I think because she felt so bad for me that I was just like having a horrible time.

And then one day, one of boxes got stuck and so I had to hit the emergency stop button on my part of the potato boxing. And so, the mechanic came around and he was running to the wrong spot, and so I said, “No, no, no, no, it’s over there.” So, he kind of looked at me funny and went to go fix the problem. He came back later and said, “You speak English?” I said, “Yeah, I was born and raised here in the United States.” He’s like, “Okay, I need you to do inventory.” So, I was like, “Okay.” And so then I got moved to inventory and I spent the rest of the summer doing inventory in this extremely cold, refrigerated warehouse. But, at least I wasn’t standing, sorting potatoes. I always considered that the fastest promotion I ever got.

[7:45] Narrator:If you go to the web site, city-of-warden-dot-org, you’ll see beautiful panoramic photographs of farmland. Warden’s population is mostly Hispanic, and some families trace their heritage as far back as the early Spanish explorers. But for many in this community, including Marleen, life is divided between two countries. And that has presented unique challenges for her life.

[8:08] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: I spent about nine months of my childhood each year there in Warden, Washington. The other three months of my childhood I spent in a small town called Los Angeles, in Mexico, in the state of Nuevo Leon. It’s up north, kind of by the Texas border. So, we would go there every November, and then come back to the states about end of January, or early February.

So, when my parents would take us out of school for three months at a time, we had to prove that we were enrolled somewhere. And so, we would enroll in school in Mexico, but the problem with that was that our parents wanted us to keep up with the schools in the United States. And there was a lot of us from town. Warden is a very large agricultural migrant community. So, every winter half the school would leave. And so the teachers knew that you needed to prepare all of your lesson plans for the months of November through February ahead of time, because all the kids were going to be leaving and they needed to take all their homework with them.

Moving back and forth was fun. Five or six families from Warden went down to Mexico at the same time. And so, we would make our Suburban into like this big bed. Because we didn’t have enough room for three months of luggage. And so, what we would do is just loosely we’d put all the clothes into the foot wells of everything. And then, we would cover it with a big blanket. Then, we would make sure we had, all of our seat belts were accessible, because we knew we still had to be wearing our seat belts most of the time. And my dad installed this little AC/DC converted television with like the smallest little VCR and we just watched movies the whole way down. And all of our cousins had, convertible vans, I think is what they were called? Everyone would just rotate from vehicle to vehicle just depending on who was playing what movie, what day. You know, we’d stop for breakfast and someone would say, “Oh, we’re going to watch Casper” and so we would all go to that van. Took us two and a half days to drive down straight. They’d drive through the night, our parents would just keep rotating in and out.

And then, in Mexico… our town in Mexico, it’s more like a ranch. Just a bunch of houses kind of in one centralized place. There were so many small towns around it, the bus would come and pick up all the kids from the surrounding towns and bus them to a town called Los Ramones.

The bus would pick us up at five in the morning, then we’d get to school at eight in the morning. We were the first ones picked up because we were the farthest away. Then, we would go to class until about noon. We would usually leave Los Ramones at about 12:30, 1:00 and we’d get home about 3:30 in the afternoon. Then, we would go to our rooms and get all of our American homework out and we’d do a few chapters, and then we could go out and play.

It was a very interesting learning experience in that I learned how to teach myself a lot. Just going to school in Mexico was the other, I guess, hard part in the sense that I understand Spanish pretty well. I understand conversational Spanish perfectly, I don’t understand a lot of things about cellular biology in Spanish. So, when they’re talking about miosis and mitosis and cells splitting in Spanish, I had no idea what they were talking about. So, things like that were… I remember sitting in class and just writing everything down then going home and asking my dad what it all meant. And that’s how I got through school in Mexico, was a lot of writing stuff down and translating once I got home.

[11:41] Narrator:So here’s a girl trying to excel in school in both the U.S. and Mexico, working under the hot summer sun in the potato fields, or in the loud and tedious potato warehouse. She also worked for a time cleaning hotel rooms. This is not the easiest life, and to add to the challenge, Marleen has Tourette syndrome.

[12:01] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological disorder that manifest itself in tics: motor tics and vocal tics. So, for example, the listeners can’t see mine because most of my tics are motor tics. So, they’re in my face, they’re in my hands, I scrunch my nose, I blink my eye, I kind of rub my fingers together. When I was a freshman in high school I used to repeat a lot of the words that I said. It was iffy — I would repeat either the last word of the sentence I just said, or I would repeat the entire sentence, depending on how long it was. Tourette syndrome, the motor tics can just vary a lot, but the vocal tics are usually in three categories. One is palilalia, which I had, which is the echoing of your own words. There’s echolalia, which is the echoing of other people’s words. And then there’s coprolalia, which is the uttering of inappropriate words. So, that’s a lot of what the media picks up, the people who curse out loud.

And so, when I was growing up I knew there was something different. I knew I had these things that I couldn’t control. My mom was always telling me that I needed to stop, and I couldn’t control, and I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t know why, and I figured it was something that was wrong with me, I just didn’t know what it was.

My senior year of high school I was reading my sister’s teen magazine, and Neve Campbell had written this essay about how she was trying to spread awareness because her brother had Tourette syndrome. She goes on and she’s describing all of his tics and all of the symptoms that he would display. I remember just reading them and it was like, “Oh, I do that one.” And he blinked his eyes and I was like, “Oh, I do that one.” He cleared his throat, and I thought, ” I did that one, too.” As she’s naming all these different tics, I was like, “I do all of these.” And so, I remember having this epiphany. I was like, “Oh my god, I have Tourette syndrome. That’s what it’s called.” And so, I went downstairs and I was like, “Mom, I have Tourette syndrome.” She was like, “Yeah, it’s what the doctor said when you were little.” I was like, “What? Why didn’t you tell me?” She just said, “Well, I didn’t think you needed to know.” I don’t know if it would’ve made a difference had I known earlier, but once I knew what it was, it was kind of like, okay, so it has a name, other people have it, which means I’m normal. I’m not crazy, there’s nothing too wrong with me. There’s still something wrong with me, but at least it’s something that other people have.

When I was about 25 years old, I thought, “I wonder if there’s a camp for kids with Tourette syndrome.” So, I just Googled “Tourette camp” and I found this Tourette’s camp that is held up in northern Illinois, just north of Chicago. It’s called Tourette (Syndrome) Camp USA. I went to their website and saw that there was staff applications, so I applied to volunteer as a staff member. My first summer was 2009, and I went and I just met all of these people with Tourette syndrome. Up to this time I hadn’t met anyone else with Tourette syndrome. I just remember thinking this is fantastic. I love these people, everyone has so many different tics. I remember looking at these little kids walking in and they were blinking their eyes and scrunching their nose, or doing this little weird head tic that I did. I was like oh my god, that was me when I was eight. I was like, “I can help these kids.” I’ve just had such a fun time every year going back that I’m now the Assistant Camp Director. I’m a member of the Board of Directors for Tourette Syndrome Camping Organization. It’s just been a lot of fun and a really good experience being able to see these kids come in and not only help them with coping mechanisms and talk about Tourette syndrome, but also tell them what I do. Talk to them about the space program, and talk to them about being an engineer, and how Tourette syndrome, in and of itself doesn’t hold you back intellectually. Our brains work just like everyone else’s, and they have the capacity to hold a lot of information just like everyone else. Tourette syndrome shouldn’t be something that you should expect to hold you back from doing anything you want to in the world.

[15:55] Narrator: Ever since she was young, Marleen’s ambitions have been sky-high. Long before the movie, “The Martian,” showed us how to grow potatoes on Mars, Marleen gazed up at the bright stars from the potato fields of Washington, and dreamed of one day going into space.

[16:13] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: When I was five I told my mom I was going to be an astronaut. When I was in middle school I won an essay contest of the state of Washington, the Migrant Education Foundation. They had a competition where you could write an essay about why you wanted to go to space camp. They selected three students out of the state of Washington and I was one of the winners. So, the summer of 1997 I went to the U.S. Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama, and trained to be an astronaut for an entire week. I remember coming back from that experience in middle school and just having like this renewed idea and this renewed motivation to want to do something with the space program because it was so exciting. And so, I took all the math classes our high school offered, I took all the science classes.

I did pageants in high school. So I won the town Jr. Miss pageant my senior year of high school, junior year of high school, sorry, and I remember I was getting ready to go to the state competition, and there was this application for the NASA Space Grant Scholarship. And so, I was applying for it and it was due the Friday I was going to be at the state competition. All the paperwork was done, it just needed to get post stamped by a certain date. My mom had been telling me to do it before I left and I kept forgetting and kept forgetting. So, finally the morning we were leaving to the state competition she leaves the house to go put everything in the car, and I run into my room, grab all the paperwork, write a note to my mom like, “Mom can you post mark this by January 15th?” I set it on her bed, because I didn’t want to get in trouble. So, she takes me to Pullman, Washington where the state competition was, drops me off for the week. I talked to her a couple days later on the phone, she was like, “I mailed out your application.” I was like, “Thanks, Mom.”

Come mid-February, I get a phone call from the Space Grant office at the University of Washington, and they said, “Oh, you’re a finalist. We would like you to come in for an interview.” So, I said, “Great. Do you have to go to University of Washington to get this scholarship?” And they said, “Yes.” I said, “Oh, I didn’t apply to the University of Washington.” So I went to my high school guidance counselor the next day and I said, “I got this opportunity to get this scholarship, I just didn’t apply to UW. My heart was set on Gonzaga University since I was in middle school.” And so, my guidance counselor called the University of Washington and she just kept calling admission counselors until she could find one that was willing to accept a late application. So, they said, “Drop off your application with this specific woman, she’s willing to take it but you have to hand deliver it.” So, I said, “Okay, I’ll be there March 1st. And then February 28th of 2001 was the big Seattle earthquake.

[18:54] KOMO 4 TV news report:

Good evening, here’s the newest information on the earthquake just into our newsroom.

The 6.8 quake struck at 10:54 this morning, it was centered 11 miles northeast of Olympia. It was felt as far away as Whistler, in British Columbia, Portland, Oregon, even Salt Lake City, Utah.

More than 200 people have been injured, most in King County. Some of the wounded are still trickling into emergency rooms.

And many people are homeless tonight, their apartments and houses damaged beyond safety, hundreds of buildings are also damaged…

[19:22] So an earthquake hits Seattle, I show up the next day, the whole campus is shut down. The Registrar’s Office where the Admission Office is, is closed. So I go in for my interview and I tell them, “I need to hand deliver this application to this specific woman at Admissions.” They offered to do it for me, thankfully. And coming home that night, our car broke down. The car wouldn’t come out of fourth gear. This was the worst day. So, we end up at the top of Snoqualmie Pass with a broken-down car because it was snowing, and there was a blizzard, and the car wouldn’t come out of fourth gear, and so we had to get a tow truck, and sleep in a hotel, and then finally made it home.

So April, May rolls around, and I get three envelopes. The first one I opened says that I got the NASA Space Grant Scholarship, and I was so excited. Then, the second one I opened, mentioned full ride but I didn’t quite understand it, so I just put it to the side. Opened the third one, that was my admission to University of Washington, which got me really excited. But then I went back to the other one, and I was like, how do I apply for this, I really want it. So, I called the Registrar’s Office at the University of Washington and I was like, “What’s this Costco Scholarship, it sounds really exciting. How do I apply?” They were like, “No, you won it. Your application to the University of Washington was the application to the scholarship, we’re giving you $52,000 to go to the University of Washington.” So that pretty much sealed the deal.

[20:46] Narrator:Marleen embraced this opportunity and studied aerospace engineering in college. That brought her one step closer to her dream of working on missions to space.

[20:55] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard:I didn’t want to go back and work in the fields, or clean hotel rooms. I thought, if I could get an internship then I don’t have to do all these other crazy jobs. I worked at the University of Toledo my freshman summer, then I worked at the University of Wisconsin my sophomore summer. And so when my junior summer was rolling around, the NASA Space Grant office was going to pay for two students to come to JPL and work for the summer. So, I sent in my application and then I spent the next 10 weeks of the summer as the propulsion lead for a Mission Architecture Group. Then, the following summer, I worked under Matt Golombek, who is our Landing Site selection lead here on the InSight program. He hired me into the geology group my second summer here at JPL. So, I counted rocks for an entire summer for Matt. They were on Mars, so it was kind of cool. So what I was doing that summer was trying to find the probability of Phoenix hitting a boulder upon landing.

[21:55] Narrator: The Phoenix mission, in 2008, was a NASA lander very similar in design to InSight. It landed near the North Pole of Mars. That lander scooped up soil and analyzed the chemical composition.

[22:08] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: So that experience comes into my InSight experience in the sense that whenever we have to set up the work space, Matt Golombek has given a probability of how many rocks, or boulders, or any type of geological structure we’re expecting to see. So, I can set up the workspace with the idea of knowing what Matt means when he says a 10 percent coverage of rocks. I’m like, “Oh, that’s not a lot, okay.”

[22:32] Narrator: Marleen had moved beyond counting potatoes, to counting rocks on Mars. But even after two internships at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – also known as “JPL”- it wasn’t a straight shot to getting a job here. When she graduated from college, she applied to several aerospace companies and ended up at Lockheed Martin. She worked there for a decade. She met her husband at Lockheed; they had a child. Her husband had worked on the InSight mission years before, and eventually they both ended up back at JPL.

As Marleen told us earlier, she’s the testbed lead for NASA’s InSight mission. Her group re-enacts everything the lander will do on Mars, using a model of the lander that stays here on Earth. The engineers dream up all the possible things that could happen to the mission. They run test after test, practicing everything. One of the things they do to mimic operating the lander on Mars is work “in the blind.”

[23:31] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: Once we land on Mars, the only eyes we have are the eyes of the camera. So, the only thing we see is what the camera shows us. We as a testbed team will go in and we’ll set up the workspace. So, we’ll put rocks in specific spots, or different spots. We’ll have different tilts on the lander, or different tilts in the workspace, and then we’ll take all the imaging that the lander will take on Mars, then we send those to the team and we say, “Ok, here you go, here are all of your pictures. Where do you want to put the instruments down?” So, then they get together, and they look at all the pictures, and they discuss where the best place will be. The team writes all the sequences and then they send them to us, the testbed team, and then we go into the testbed and run them. We can’t tell them how it went. We just run all of their sequences, take more pictures and then send it back to them with all the data and say, “Here you go. This is what it looks like.” They’re in the blind, so all they have is the pictures to go off of, and then they can try to figure out what their next step is going to be.

Whenever the team is working in the blind, they work during the day. We have to come in and run everything at night. The spacecraft has its normal sleep, wake cycles that are timed so once we’re on Mars we want to wake up whenever Earth is within our sight so that we can transmit all our data to the Mars Odyssey satellite and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. So sometimes that’s 2 a.m., sometimes it’s 4 a.m. So, the spacecraft will wake up, we’ll run all of our sequences, then we’ll beam all the data up to the satellite, then we’ll go back to sleep. When the team is working in the blind, we call ourselves the little testbed gremlins, just because no one sees us. Just stuff happens in the night and miraculously all the data is there in the morning. So, that’s good for them, not so much for my sleeping.

One of our engineers came to us and said, “I would like to blind the camera. Cover the camera with something very dark so that it can’t see anything, there’s no light coming in. So, we went in and we blinded the camera, and I thought that’s funny we’re putting an eye patch on the lander, and I thought, “Oh my god, it’s One-Eyed Willy.”

[25:39]Movie clip: “The Goonies”

Haven’t you ever heard of that guy? What’s his name? The pirate guy – One-Eyed Willie.

One-Eyed Willie… One-Eyed Willie, yeah! He was the most famous pirate in his time. My dad told me all about him once.

Dad will do anything to get you to go to sleep.

No, see One-Eyed Willie stole a treasure once, and it was full of rubies and emeralds and…



[26:04]Just because I’m a huge Goonies fan growing up. So I asked them, “Can I name it the One-Eyed Willy test?” He goes, “Sure.” So, that’s on all the test documentation for the testbed, it just says “One-Eyed Willy test.” Obviously they’re all controlled requirements and tests that we have to perform, but it’s nice to have some fun with it and just pull some of your childhood back into it.

[26:25] Narrator: The testbed where the model of InSight sits is called “the sandbox,” but it’s not filled with your everyday sand. In fact, it’s reminiscent of One-Eyed Willie’s treasure.

[26:35] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: What it really is, is it’s crushed garnet. It is a precious gemstone. If you ever Google “raw crushed garnet,” it just looks like reddish, brownish, gray rocks. And we use this crushed garnet because it’s dust free. It doesn’t create dust because it’s so hard. We use it because it has the same kind of properties as the regolith, which is what we call Martian dirt or soil. Here we call it earth, the ground is not only the Earth, but it’s called earth. Whereas on Mars, we can’t just call it mars because people would get really confused, so we call it regolith. And the regolith has the same kind of properties as other stuff here on Earth, but the closest we could get without having dirt, or dust, in our indoor testbed is the crushed garnet.

[27:26] Narrator: If InSight runs into any problems getting those instruments on the ground, engineers can use the testbed lander to troubleshoot. Once they’ve figured out what to do in the testbed, they’ll send the commands to the lander on Mars. After InSight’s instruments are placed on the ground and start operating, if no other problems arise, then Marleen’s work is done. But she still has ambitions for more.

[27:48] Marleen Martinez Sundgaard: I still want to be an astronaut. I have applied three times. I applied in 2008, 2012, and then 2016, because it’s every four years. And, I have all three of my rejection letters framed at home. They’re basically just reminders that I’m not done yet. I talk to a lot of people about my Tourette syndrome and when I talk about that and I talk about that I want to be an astronaut, I often get asked, “Do you think they’re going to let you be an astronaut?” I say, “Well, I don’t know. They haven’t told me no to my face yet.” So, don’t tell yourself that you can’t do something until someone else tells you, “No, we’re not going to let you in.” Then there’s other battles to fight. So, I’m just going to keep trying.


[28:45] Narrator: Next time, On a Mission.

[28:47] Sue Smrekar: If you look at the history of exploration, there are many disasters along the way to those fabulous discoveries. If you’re gonna be in the business, you have to pick yourself up and keep going ahead.

[29:01] Narrator:If you like this podcast, rate, like and share us through your favorite podcast platform. We’re hashtag, nasaonamission. Also check out NASA’s other podcasts: Gravity Assist, Rocket Ranch, What’s Up, NASA in Silicon Valley, and Houston We Have a Podcast. They can all be found on NASA’s podcast page. We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

[total time: 29:31]