NASA Social JPL – Safe on Mars

September 26, 2012


Euphoric Trepidation
I kept checking the clock because it felt like 10:30 was barreling down on us like a freight train. Spacecraft launches can often be delayed but this landing was mostly being coordinated by Isaac Newton. He tends to keep to the schedule. I kept imagining the sky crane with Curiosity tucked away inside, and wondered if the final approach was the beginning or the end. Either way, the clock was ticking down. We were outside spread across the JPL plaza casually chatting away with a few of the VIP guests and gawking upwards at the night sky. Our wranglers closed in and herded us up like a bunch of feral cats and shooed us back inside while Curiosity plunged towards Mars.

Back in the media center I found a seat near the front and settled in with my laptop. By now I had developed a system for uploading posts that seemed efficient enough and I was comfortable with it. I was getting quick at whipping the SD card out of my camera and sliding it into the built-in reader slot in my laptop. It had become a habit to first develop a few potential tweets in notepad, knowing about how many inches a remark could be on my screen and stay within 140 characters. I tried to think ahead, getting a post mostly worded so I could edit it slightly when the time came and then quickly copy and paste it into each of the three browser tabs I had open; Google Plus, Twitter, and Facebook. The G+ and Twitter accounts were my personal “opinions-are-my-own” type accounts but the Facebook posts were on my official WWU Planetarium page.

Concerned Guy is concerned. (Steve Collins, Spaceflight Operations Facility. Photo by Brian van der Brug - AP)

Seven Minutes of Twitter
The time for entry, descent, and landing approached and things started getting serious. People seemed giddy and nervous at the same time. It was like everyone was thinking “The stakes are high but this is what we came for so let’s do it.”

Here are my tweets in chronological order, having removed the repetitive hashtags; #NASAsocial #JPL #MSL #EDL

  • Back to business. Stuff is going down in mission control.
  • “Space camp rules, sports camp drools” ~ Wil Wheaton
  • Call Meme Maybe
  • They are saying that Odyssey is in position to photograph MSL.
  • Ladies and Gentleman, our EDL moment is almost here.
  • Powering down cruise stage hardware.
  • Receiving heartbeat tones from curiosity.
  • Here we go, it’s 7 minutes of TERROR TIME!!!
  • We might get some pics a few minutes after landing.
  • Still getting heartbeat.
  • nailbiting

If there were space dogs in the Mars Curiosity they would have to pee real bad right now.

@Skywise88Brad Snowder
@DaisyJDog DO NOT stick your head out of the window!

  • looking good, time to enter and descend (1 min)
  • Entry has begun.
  • Feel that atmosphere baby!
  • 11 to 12 g-force, we are getting DATA
  • Heading to target
  • All looking good, Mach 2
  • deceleration, Parachute deployed
  • ground radar contacts ground
  • shield separation, powered flight achieved
  • sky crane deployed!
  • Pasadena, we have reached the surface.
  • images coming down to earth
  • I’m looking at a shot of mars from curiosity right now!!!
  • O M G WIN
  • Safe and Healthy on Mars
  • More images coming down – we see the shadow of the rover.
  • Excuse me, I have to go hug people.
  • A bazillion people in blue shirts just came in and marched around the room high fiving everyone here a bazillion times.
  • Yeah. That happened.

Shadow Cheer. Photo by Brad Snowder
Seven Minutes Later
Other than the cheering upon each bit of good news, parachute open, powered flight, skycrane started, etc, there were three major spontaneous uncontrollable eruptions. The first was when flight director Allen Chen announced “Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars.” The room absolutely exploded. I think the room was designed to hold maybe 400 people but it felt like there were somewhat closer to a thousand. Maybe not that many but it sure sounded like it. All that nervous energy was suddenly converted to acoustical energy at the rate of some freakish power of x. Also I may have been responsible for demonstrating some improvisational dance moves involving questionable gyrations of my booty.

First Mars Shadow. Photo by CuriosityThe second seismic quake happened when the big video screen showed Curiosity’s shadow contrasting with the sunlit Martian sand. That visually sealed the deal. A picture is worth a thousand words but the crowd supplied the words anyway, mostly yeehaws, owwoooos, and various derivative forms of w00t. At one point I’m pretty sure I sighed an audible “fuckin-a.”

The Blue Shirts from Earth
The most sustained cheer of all came when the doors suddenly burst open and a promenade of geeks in blue shirts marched in, creating a bow wake through the crowd. They were high-fiving everyone in their path, they plowed their way up to the front, across the front and down the other side to where the tweeps were expertly snapping photos, high-fiving, and eating peanuts, all with one hand while posting tweets with the other. The line of blue shirts had by then entirely circled the room and it continued to orbit, around and around amid the whooping and hand slapping and furious camera flashing. I don’t know how many times they actually made it around. It seemed unstoppable. I managed to high-five Bobak Ferdowsi, a.k.a. Mohawk Guy, each hand in quick succession, during the moment he was becoming famous.

March of the Blue Shirts. Photo by Brad Snowder.
High Five High. Photo by Brad Snowder.

Someone at the microphone up front began to try to control the noise, maybe Elachi, maybe Bolden, I was uploading photos of Bobak. The commander’s requests for quiet dragged on, becoming more insistent and then demanding. After about a full minute the microphone voice took on a militant tone ordering immediate compliance and the room finally went silent. Then the voice thanked some people and then pointed out something about the image of Curiosity’s shadow displayed up on the screen and that was it. The crowd was in pandemonium again.

Bobak and the Tweeps. Photo by Brad Snowder.

Clara Ma. Photo by Damian Dovarganes - APClara Ma, the young lady who named Curiosity, is my favorite example of how people, many people, people like us tweeps, become emotionally attached to a project like this. We are totally in love with the effort. It’s a level of consciousness, a connection to nature unlike we humans see from any other animal on Earth. My dog use to howl at the moon but humans went there, brought back rocks and said “Holy crap look at these rocks from the freaking moon!” When the tensions of the seven minutes of terror were over and it was clear that success was not in doubt, naturally we were all very emotional. But then I looked over at Clara and her exuberance was unequaled. So much so, that seeing her unbridled joy is what finally brought moisture to my own eyes. She was hugging friends and family members. I started hugging strangers.

Thank you Clara. Thank you NASA, and JPL, and my fellow NASA Social Tweep Alumni, and thank you Curiosity. It was an unforgettable, bucket-list sort of thing. Thank you.

Getting Dirty. Photo by Curiosity.
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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2 Comments on “NASA Social JPL – Safe on Mars”

  1. acwynn on twitter Says:

    Best blog post ever! I was at NASA Ames, it was fun there, but JPL was way more intense. Thank you for capturing the tension, the release, and all those emotions of the day. Great writing!



  1. NASA Social JPL – The Belly of the Beast | Skywise Unlimited - January 10, 2015

    […] 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. 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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). 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 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 A 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. 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. Bill 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. 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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