Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account From The Chief Engineer
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Last week was not a good week for space travel. A pilot died during a test flight over the Mojave Desert. Just days before the unmanned rocket exploded off of the Virginia coast seconds after launch, events like these remind us how risky and complex it is to explore space. But when it works, it is amazing. My next guest has written a history of an amazing project that has worked and is working to expand our knowledge of Mars. Rob Manning is Mars engineering manager with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. His book is called Mars Rover Curiosity, an Inside Account from curiosities chief engineer. Welcome to the program. ROB MANNING: Thank you, it is great to be here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do failed launches and test flights, even involving test flights, does it affects the entire space community? ROB MANNING: It does. We are a family in many respects. The people who were doing this, particularly the people who put their lives on the line to explore and try out new technologies, because of what happened in Mojave, those are people just like us. The difference is, we are not putting our lives on the line. I would be very relieved to tell you that when we build our vehicles we do our best to keep out of harms way. In fact, if I had to make a vehicle land on Mars, I would much rather land a robot than a person. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you guys look at the video footage of the launch off the coast of Virginia and what happened in the Mojave Desert, and do you speculate on what went wrong? ROB MANNING: Of course. We are engineers and we are curious. Failure is what we do, we are human beings, we are not rocket scientists any different than you are. We are a bunch of people who are trying to take the best ideas and the best lessons from the mistakes of the past and try to do something better next time. Mistakes happen. Sometimes the mistakes and up with tragic or dramatic consequences. Most of the time, When these events happen, we take those lessons and make sure it does not happen again. We have had thousands of mistakes. The real question is, how can you live with your self building vehicles made by humans? The trick is not just learning from mistakes, but catching them. One of the things that we try to do is to double check the work that we do. We have a second set of eyes of people looking over each other's shoulders. We do two times of tests and try to make sure that when we make a mistake, and we expect mistakes, those mistakes are caught before it is too late. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As terrible as moments like I was describing, those incidents last week, there are also moments of absolute jubilation. Like this, when the Mars Rover Curiosity landed. [ AUDIO PLAYING ] [CHEERING AND APPLAUSE ] [ CROWD NOISE ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you were there. ROB MANNING: I was. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us when that was, and why it was so momentus. ROB MANNING: August 5, 2012, we finally got curiosity rover to the surface of Mars. We had working on this project for over a decade. In fact, this project life was even longer than the rovers Spirit and opportunity. This is a culmination of enormous work, engineering, technology, you hear these people cheering, it's not cheering out of happiness, it's cheering out of relief. In order to land something like this, first, the first time we ever tested the system stem to stern is that Mars, in front of millions of people watching on television and over the Internet. We are right out there. Imagine if your first aircraft flight was in front of everyone. That is exactly what happens. The reason is, we cannot test our systems on earth is Earth and Mars are very different. Mars has less gravity and a lot less atmosphere. For example, when we had this giant peers shoot that we were coming down on toward the surface, we are screaming at over 200 miles per hour. We are going at the same speed as a person who leaves out of airplane without a parachute. These systems had to be tested in pieces on earth. But the first time all of these pieces are glued together is in that moment, and all we can do is visualize and think what we forgot. What did I forget to think about? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned already that the Rover Curiosity is a robotic device. Can you give us an idea of what it can do? ROB MANNING: It can do less now than it did when it landed. When it landed, it had the ability to fly the distance between Earth and Mars, it was able to be a hypersonic pilot. That landing sequence that we were cheering about, none of us needed to be there. It was all curiosity. We were monitoring every aspect as best as we could in real time. But the landing was actually over with by the time we get the first bit of information. Mars at that time was 13 light minutes away. We had to train the rover to do all of these things via a hypersonic pilot. To steer itself into flat areas just at the base of Mount Sharp. And then, it had to convert itself into a robotic helicopter pilot and had to lower itself by controlling a jet powered helicopter over its head as it lowered itself on its wheels. Those are all skills this rover had to know when it landed. A few days later we had to tell it to forget all of those things. We did not have enough room in the memory costs we wiped the memory and had to load new software. If you are going to be a roving scientist, these are the things that you have to know how to do. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You call Curiosity the eyes and ears of scientists on earth. How do you do that? What are scientists trying to discover about Mars? ROB MANNING: The thing about building a robot on Mars, the first order is that we are not really controlling it. We do not have a joystick, we cannot use a radio controlled car. It's like having a team in Antarctica, and you are sending them a set of instructions by email overnight. The rover wakes up and Mars has a day of 24 hours and 39 minutes. So we can sleep in 39 minutes every day. The rover wakes up with these instructions, and it does our bidding throughout the course of the day. But at the end of the day, the rover sends back not just images from two-dimensional images, as well as all of the information from its instruments, its laboratories, and from that information, we can put our heads in that information. Even though it has happened earlier in the day, but the time of night comes along and we can be on Mars and see what it saw, we can feel what it felt when it was on the surface of Mars. Many of us feel like this is an extension of ourselves. When we go to work, in the daytime, we are going to Mars. And we can come home and have a glass of wine when we get home. The most exciting thing about this for me is that we know the rover. First of all, looking for life, we have discovered life in a place that we already know the surface is sterile. It is sterile because Mars does not have the ozone layer to protected from ultraviolet light and it does not have a magnetic field to deflect solar particles. The surface of Mars is not a very good place for things to be alive. But, below, it is a different story. We know now that there is ice underneath the surface of Mars, and we also know from the other rovers that Mars was once a wet world. What we wanted to know in this mission, is it possible that not only that Mars was wet, but was it warm? Was it conducive for life? Did it have the right acidic balance? Was it too salty, or not? Did it have the right ingredients to allow life to survive and thrive? On our first drill, unbelievably, we drove to an area called Yellowknife Bay. It was an area that was full of what looks like flagstone rock, almost like tile in front of us. We took our drill and trilled into it, and took a small amount of ground rock finely ground, and we dropped it off into each of our laboratories that we took with us inside the body of this rover. From that information, we did used to that Mars, when Earth and Mars were both getting kick started in the solar system, Mars was wet, comfortable, and habitable for life as the way that Earth was. If that is the case, why wouldn't there be life somewhere? Could there have been life long ago? If so, could the record of life be preserved in the rocks? The answer is, We have not seen life. There is no evidence that is solid evidence that Mars had life. We thought that we had seen some in a rock that came from Mars and came and landed on Antarctica. It's a fantastic rock that has geological and possible biological structures. But we were never able to convince ourselves that was constructed by biological processes. The jury is still open. Many of us believe that if we look hard enough and far enough, we might see signs that life was on Mars at one time. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You are obviously enthralled by this, and you want to tell people about it, and it is such a pivotal part of your life. The space program used to be so closely followed by Americans. Do you think people are unaware of what is going on now in these recent discoveries? And the excitement that you're talking about right now, about these imminent discoveries? ROB MANNING: It is not the same as it used to be. We have many more sources of information, and the people who are interested in the stuff do follow it. We have a following all of the world of people who are really, really excited about it. But you are right, it is not the same as it used to be. I kinda feel it is my response ability. I am paid by taxpayers. I work for America. I am very proud of what my team and I have a compass over the years. I would really love to share it. There are plenty of scientists who are able to write books, and wonderful articles. They have done a great job of showing us Mars. But I want to tell them a little about not only what we discovered, but the adventure of getting there. Spirit, opportunity, Pathfinder, and Viking, they were very exciting missions to develop. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And curiosity is the advanced version of those rovers. ROB MANNING: The curiosity is the monster of the mall. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How long is its mission? ROB MANNING: The primary mission was one Mars year, which is two earth years. NASA just approved us to continue doing science on Mars. First, we landed at the base of this in a unusual mountain that is higher than Mount Rainier. It is a layer cake of fine layers going all the way to the top. Some of those layers were laid down by water. Other layers were laid down hundreds of millions or billions of years later by wind. This is like the Grand Canyon, the upside down ran Canyon, where Grand Canyon you make AV into the dirt, this is the V sticking up. What is so great about it, the bottom layers of this mountain are the oldest layers and may actually predate the times when life may have gotten started. If we worked our way up, and we are at the base right now, we are looking at some of the oldest layers, and we really hope that in the exploration of both the mineralogy and the chemical constituents of these layers, we may find the chemical signatures of past life. Just because we do not find it does not mean it was not there. Mars, the trouble with life, it does not last forever. It's like our own equipment. You put organic molecules in and expose it and layer it below the surface even a foot below, the cosmic rays from outer space degrade its. It is difficult if you're looking for life that is three-point 5 billion years old. You have to look at areas that are recently exposed. We also discovered that this area had been covered as recently as 80 million years ago, Which is a long time by our standards, but that was just yesterday as far as Mars is concerned. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There is a development for 20/20. You involved in that? ROB MANNING: I am. The team is in the process now. We are taking the old curiosity and reusing the same designs. We are making changes where we need to. But we are trying to make it. The budget is smaller. In order to take advantage of all the things that we learned in curiosity, we are using the same agreement and designs. The one thing that is different, we have new copies of science expense. More important, this mission will do something that curiosity was never able to do, that is to take rock cores and collect core samples and over the course of its two or three year life on Mars, it will collect cores and collect them into a pile. We will drop them off on Mars, and another mission later will come back and take those cores that were collected over a long period of time, and put them into a rocket and put them into orbit around Mars. A year or two later, and orbit will come along and gobble that spacecraft and fly them back to America. And it will land here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Your enthusiasm is infectious, I enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you so much. ROB MANNING: Thank you very much for asking me to come.
November was not a good week for space travel. A pilot died during a test flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo over the Mojave Desert. Just days before, an unmanned rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded off the Virginia coast seconds after launch.
Events like these remind us how risky and complex space exploration can be. But when it works, it's amazing.
Rob Manning was the chief engineer on the Mars rover "Curiosity" project. He has written, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity's Chief Engineer, a history of one amazing project that is working to expand our knowledge of Mars.
Manning joins Midday Edition with insight on the challenges involved in getting an unmanned robot on the surface of Mars — and what scientists are learning from its mission.