What I Learned from Mars Polar Lander

 
 

My first mission at JPL taught me a lot of things, including that space exploration isn't for everyone.  When I started, my task was to help develop the tools that would control the Mars Polar Lander after it landed.  It was an extremely challenging mission, in part because it was to be an emblem of the new "Faster, Cheaper, Better" approach to space exploration. There wasn't enough money for anything.  Still, it somehow made it to the launchpad, survived the slightly controlled explosion that we call "launch", and dodged all of the navigational mistakes that had doomed its sister spacecraft, the Mars Climate Orbiter, a few months earlier.  However, as anyone in my business will tell you, a lander's launch and cruise are nothing compared to the trial that follows.

The now fairly famous "seven minutes of terror" of Martian Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) could be considered shorthand for the "seven minutes of contemplating if the last 4 years of your life have amounted to anything," the "seven minutes of wondering if you'll have a job tomorrow," and for some, the "seven minutes of considering what a congressional inquiry might be like."  For Mars Polar Lander it could also be called the "seven minutes of terror AND UTTER SILENCE" because the aforementioned scant budget prevented the inclusion of any system that would allow the spacecraft to communicate with us during those seven minutes.  Everything looked perfect on final approach.  The spacecraft went quiet exactly when expected.  We watched the clock for seven minutes.  And then heard nothing.

Just to be clear, we didn't hear "Mayday, mayday, this is Mars Polar Lander, and I'm going down!"  or "Mars Polar Lander here.  I'm sorry guys, but this is farewell."  Just NOTHING.

You might think it was time to give up.  After all, not hearing back from a machine whose top priority (aside from not making a huge hole in the ground) was to phone home is really not a good sign.  But it turns out that there are a lot of things that can go wrong in those seven minutes, and some don't mean the spacecraft is dead.  The spacecraft might have reset right after landing, might have gotten confused about what time it was, might have lost track of which way it was facing, might have suffered a momentary antenna malfunction, and so on.  These faint threads of hope weave into a tangled mess called a fault tree and at JPL we don't give up until every branch has been tested and ruled out.  So for many days later, the team gathered at precisely appointed times as we turned the antennas of the Deep Space Network to the sky in what can only be described as a gesture of hope.

 
 

Most of the news crews were long gone, but I'm afraid they hadn't forgotten us.  Many were busy publishing articles openly criticizing NASA and questioning whether it was really worth the investment of taxpayer money.  There was talk of a special investigative commission in Congress.  Then, just when all hope seemed lost, when we were just about to give up, on the day of the very last communication opportunity, something remarkable happened...

All hope was lost.  We did give up.

I'm sorry, folks - every story of space exploration doesn't end like Apollo 13, with a radio crackling to life and a room erupting in celebration and tears.  Some stories just end with the tears.

Project Manger Richard Cook informing the media of mission failure. He stayed.

Project Manger Richard Cook informing the media of mission failure. He stayed.

I wish I could say that at JPL, we all stolidly accept these stakes and simply move on.  Could you calmly accept that four years of struggle and sacrifice had been obliterated in an instant?  That the call of congratulations from Capitol Hill would instead be a call for judgement?  I was fortunate - I had spent a fraction of the time on the mission that many others had, but even for me it was a heavy blow.  Recall that I was building the software to control the spacecraft after it landed, so I had to face that my software was simply never going to be used.  Some did leave.  I stayed because I saw colleagues, who had worked on the mission from the beginning, who did accept the failure and move on.  I also knew that it couldn't always be like this.  If I had to experience a mission failure I was determined to also experience mission success.

It would take five more years.  Like I said, space exploration isn't for everyone.