NASA Social JPL – The Belly of the Beast

September 4, 2012

Astronomy, Science, Technology

To My Tweeps
I have a message to those thousands of space geeks who wanted to go to the JPL Mars landing tweet-up, to those who wound up on the waiting list hoping for an opening, and especially to those rogues who showed up anyway and tweeted the event from off-campus. I sympathize with you sincerely. By some quirk of fate I was here while you were there but you were frequently in my thoughts. I feel like I owe you more than anyone else to give a complete report. It is you more than anyone who deserves and will appreciate such a report. If in the midst of jealous imaginations you pictured us basking in glory, I assure you it was no mere fantasy. We basked. I wish JPL could re-roll those days including a new group of tweeps with each replay until we all had our fill. There were so many climatic highlights as to cause a blur.

Mission Control
Very few experiences can provide any higher geek-rush than a visit to a NASA mission control room. There is something surreal about having a flight director invite you to sit in his or her chair, and offering to take your camera and snap a couple shots of you sitting there, with a hundred monitors flickering their data in the background. Once again, it was the people that made the event so delightfully memorable. Our hosts in the control rooms were Allen Chen, EDL Operations and Flight Dynamics Lead for MSL, Jim McClure, JPL Spaceflight Operations Facility manager, and Jessica Samuels, Surface Operations Facility Manager.

NASA JPL Spaceflight Operations Facility. A space geek Mecca Photo by Brad Snowder

Ever since the days of Gemini and Apollo, my vision of NASA has mostly been the rows upon rows of monitor stations, showing charts and graphs and tables of data. This is the brain. Information flows in, is made available for the synthesis of thought, made intelligible, and acted upon. And all orchestrated by the director like, well, an orchestra. Not sure where else to go with that. We toured two control facilities and we were allowed to stay for some time and wallow. There was one room for flight operations, getting Curiosity safely to the surface of Mars, and another for the surface operations in the years following arrival. In both cases our sizable group spread out. We wandered down the rows of monitors, taking turns sitting in the the chairs and flashing photos of each other, and politely button-holing all the JPL people who enthusiastically played show and tell for us.

Dr. Randii Wessen and Stephanie Smith demonstrate the finer details of celestial mechanics.
Thank you Dr. Randii Wessen for all the technical explanations.

Above the flight control room is a comfy V.I.P. lounge that overlooks the whole operation. It would be interesting to know exactly who enjoyed that premium vista during the landing event. At that time we were off furiously posting updates as all the newsy bits were being funneled to us.

Image is Everything
PIXAR has nothing on JPL Digital Imaging Animation Lab (DIAL). This is the place where a maximum return of visualization can be rendered from the available data. Doug Ellison and other graphics wizards don’t just create imagery, they create milieus, whole worlds of multi-dimensional reality. For instance in the foyer is an oversized display globe that projects its surface from the inside.

Digital Imaging Animation Lab. A magical place. Photo by Rhonda Glennon

At the touch of a control screen it can become any world, Earth, Mars, the Sun, whatever. It can move that world forward or backward in time, showing continental drift and so forth. Want to study hurricanes, solar flares, dust storms? It can show vectors of wind, or water currents, or temperature differentials dynamically. Have doubts about global warming? Watch what the glaciers are doing.

Twin Rovers
Outdoors on the plaza there is a life-size model of the Curiosity Rover. It is really cool. People flock to it, and marvel over it. It’s shiny and clean and very photogenic. It dominates the displays which includes several other models. We all got our pictures with it. News media people love to use it for a backdrop while they generate thirty second reports that are guaranteed to include the phrase “seven minutes of terror.”

Model Rover poses for channel 7 news. Photo by Brad Snowder

But big shiny toy rover quickly loses dominance when you get to meet the real thing.

Hidden away from public view, Eric Aguilar introduced us to the fact that Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity Rover have a full working earthly counterpart, a twin. It’s not just a model. It is a stunt double, fully equipped and ready for action. Some of its human tenders have informally named it “George.” This creature was the most emotionally charged thing I saw behind the scenes that whole first day. I love this rover. To me, it looked serious, like it intended to do nothing but business. It seemed to say, “Don’t toy with me, don’t ask me to pose, don’t ask me to show off my tricks or prance about for your enjoyment. I have work to do.” Any problem or challenge the Mars Curiosity Rover might encounter on a distant planet can be explored first down here with this doppelganger. A series of my photos of this Earth Rover have been on rotation as my laptop wallpaper ever since I captured them.

Please don't feed the Earth Rover. Photo by Brad Snowder.

I’ll miss you most of all Scarecrow
Another working version of the rover, sans all the MSL equipment, lives in the Mars Yard. It’s called Scarecrow and it is stripped down of unnecessary gizmos in order to weigh about one third as much as either the Curiosity Rover or the MSL stunt double. The reason for the reduced mass is to simulate what Curiosity weighs in Martian gravity. That way the forces, like the friction, the slippage where wheel meets the sand, etc. is similar to the Martian environment. Our rover chauffer Matt Heverly had created an iPhone app which coaxed Scarecrow out of its stall and into the yard where it happily crawled over a big boulder, maybe half of a meter tall. There was a loud shrill scraping sound as the treads of an aluminum wheel irresistibly ablated the rock.

Scarecrow Rover likes to show off. Photo by Brad Snowder.

The Mars Yard is damn fun. It’s a place for a rover to come out and play. Unlike Serious George the MSL stunt double, Scarecrow Rover is like a big friendly dog. There is plenty of room and items for creating obstacle courses to test limitations and tolerances, or to recreate and model real life challenges (rockin-rover video).

Rover Wheel-code. Photo by Brad Snowder.The original rover wheel tread left an imprint pattern of the letters “JPL” in the soil. NASA was not entirely comfortable with that design because there are so many other agencies besides JPL involved with the Mars Curiosity program. On the other hand, some sort of asymmetry in the tread pattern is desired for visually assessing things like the precise distances traveled and the level of slippage. So the wheel tread of the final design leaves a cleverly encoded series of dots and dashes: (J) • – – – (P) • – – • (L) • – • •

Rogue Tweep Margarita Meet-up
Many of those not selected to enter the holy of holies of JPL were nonetheless able to travel to the area anyway to meet up with each other off site, and tweet-up the event as “rogues.” We JPL tweeps met up with the rogues for Mexican food at El Cholo in Pasadena. While I was waiting for my fajitas to arrive, JPL science outreach specialist Jane Houston Jones brought out a supply of small NASA logo stickers which immediately adorned each tweep’s phone, even at the expense of covering the precious Apple logo for some of them. My Samsung Galaxy S3 phone has a shiny white cover which provides a perfect contrast to the blue field of the familiar NASA meatball. Sue me Apple. By the way, if you are in the neighborhood, be sure to order El Cholo’s fresh guacamole, dramatically fabricated right on the spot at table-side.

Another great night spot is Lucky Baldwins in Old Pasadena. They have hearty pub fare, like steak, pizza, ribs, nachos, and about a hundred different varieties of fine ale. Some of the JPL folks (you know who you are) joined us there one evening for dinner and refreshing beverages.

Commander Bell
Susan Bell, Tweet-up expert.Susan Bell is a hero. Susan is one of us NASA Social JPL tweeps but long before we met up in Pasadena she was a big player in helping us with organizing the logistics. She created a Facebook page from our Twitter list and then designed our mission logo and helped produce the patches and lapel pins. She arranged restaurant meet-ups and otherwise helped people sort out their travel plans. She made us look good. There were others who smoothed out some of the wrinkles of course and I don’t mean to diminish their part, but I especially thank Susan for handling lots of the fine details.

Griffith Observatory
Barringer Meteor CraterA few of us squeezed in a visit to Griffith. My primary motivation was to see if they really had one of my photos on display. A few years ago someone from Griffith contacted me about buying a print of my shot of the Barringer Meteor Crater. They said it would be part of the new solar system display and that my name would be credited under the photo. I was delighted to finally have confirmation of this fact. I captured the image of the crater from a small plane while returning from an expedition to see the total solar eclipse in Baja Mexico in 1991. Shortly after shooting the crater, the pilot asked me to help navigate to Reno and I guided us across Edwards Air Force Base, interrupting a test of the brand new B1 bomber. The military was none too amused and scrambled escorts who invited us to land on the base and explain our unauthorized participation. But that’s another story.

PlanetFest and a Mars Party
The Planetary Society held their big annual shindig in Pasadena on the same weekend as the NASA JPL event. Like there wasn’t already enough awesome. I’ve been a member for years but my involvement with JPL prevented me from enjoying the conference to its fullest. I did get to stop by and register and at least check out their Curiosity blow-up doll. Oh Blow-up Rover. Blow-up Rover you’re adorable. I like you a lot. I really do. Blow-up Rover is wonderful but I confess that when I first saw Blow-up Rover I felt a rumbling volcano of face-palm just waiting to erupt. I’m sure I would have felt much differently if I hadn’t just witnessed Mr. stern-faced stunt double awaiting his marching orders, and the adventurous scarecrow terrorizing large rocks.

Blow-up Rover is adorable. Photo by Brad Snowder

The Mars Party was another festivity organized by The Planetary Society and it was a hoot. There were incredible costumes, world-class hoola hoopers, celebrities, food and music, all on an open plaza adjacent to the restaurant where we had just enjoyed the tweet-up meet-up. Somewhat margarita-tized, I wandered about mingling with the aliens, robots, and space cadets. I just wish Blow-up Rover could have been there.

Kimberly and BillBill Nye the science guy was at the Party. I had met him once before at an Astronomical League conference and he is such an excellent addition to any party. My colleague tweep Kimberly Stockton presented Bill with one of our mission patches and I gave him the matching pin. Emily Lakdawalla of Planetary Society fame was there as well.

A true highlight for me at the Mars Party was a real life meet-up with a couple of my favorite dedicated space geeks. One of these is Scott Lewis, aka The Bald Astronomer. Scott wears his hair in a style similar to my own. In addition to other astronomical achievements, Scott produces Virtual Star Parties on Google Plus. The other treat was meeting Amy Shira Teitel, a spaceflight historian and freelance writer of one of my all time favorite blogs Vintage Space. If NASA could have included just two more official tweeps, Scott and Amy would have been excellent choices.

Curiosity Stunt Double Panorama Photo by Brad Snowder.

Part 1: Mars Curiosity Landing (meeting NASA)
Part 2: Belly of the Beast (inside JPL)
Part 3: VIP Constellation (stars and mars)
Part 4: Safe on Mars (seven minutes of twitter)

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