Our Favorite Martians

For the scientists and engineers who drive the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Mars exploration is personal.

Driver Scott Maxwell uses 3-D goggles to view the Martian surface on a computer, a key way to identify obstacles. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Air & Space Magazine

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Laubach, who in the late 1990s worked on the Mars Pathfinder mission’s Sojourner rover, says that tiny vehicle stirred emotions too. “I definitely grew attached,” she says. “Sojourner was lower to the ground. Perhaps because of her size and limitations, I thought of her as a pet.

“Spirit and Opportunity”—she pauses—“are more human.”

Then, it happened. In late April 2009, as Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program, says, “Spirit did the equivalent of falling through the ice.”The rover inched up onto what no one realized was a brittle crust, and fell through into flour fine dirt. In the low gravity and atmospheric pressure, the bone-dry fluff gulped the wheels down with each effort to get out, while a menacing rock tickled the rover’s belly. A 12-degree tilt didn’t help matters. After Spirit’s 40 months and 4.3haltingmiles, at never more than 0.1mph, the team declared a halt and spent half a year working with a full-scale simulation rover in a sandbox at JPL.

In late November 2009, the team began sending new commands to Spirit, to no avail. By late December, the rover had hardly budged. With the winter sun dropping steadily toward its solstice on the northern horizon, the southern-hemisphere- dwelling rover needed to find a slope that would tilt its arrays north. The team fretted anew that Spirit might not survive the winter.

“I think it’s largely the time that people have devoted to this project that has really created this bond,” says Ashley Stroupe, a rover driver. “We’ve been working with these rovers, some of us now, for 10 years, and myself for five.” Stroupe did not anticipate the affection she feels. “I didn’t know that I’d have the time to get to know the rovers this well.” She says that the team is emotionally invested in the welfare of the vehicles, that they’re “proud” of them. “In many ways,” she says, “we think of these rovers kind of as our children that we sent off into the world way too early. And like most parents, when their kids go off to college, we can’t reach out to help them every time that they really need us.”

Vertesi takes it one step further. In her “‘Seeing Like a Rover’ ” paper, she claims the controllers not only have an anthropomorphic view of the rovers, but also a “technomorphic” shift in their own behavior.

“It’s hard for us to understand the experience of these robots that are so far away from us,” says Vertesi. “ So the scientists and engineers do the ‘rover dance.’ It’s a series of gestures that imitate the rover actions: unfurling of arms and rotating of wrists; splaying of arms behind them like solar panels. Always very aware of where the sun is. These people have a semi physical presence on Mars. One scientist got up and was talking about an observation and he began to shuffle backward…and then he said, ‘Janet, get your camera. I’m turning into the rover!’ ”

Driver John Wright confesses to some of it. “The thing I always notice is that I have to mentally visualize what the [rover] arm is doing. And I have to use my left arm. When I’m talking about it, I start with my right arm, and then I say, Wait, I have to use my left arm, because the shoulder joint’s on the left front side of the rover, and the elbow sticks out to the left. So you’re sticking your thumb out, wrapping the arm around. And turning the wheels. There’s definitely a lot of hand-waving.”

The Pancams are the eyes, says Vertesi, and they’re often talked about as such. “The rover team says, ‘We’ll look around a bit.’ When they look down, they say, ‘We’re looking between our feet.’ It pulls that rover down into the human space.”

And it sends driver Scott Max well up into the Martian space, thanks to pairs of cameras on each rover thatrecordimagesin3-D.“When I’m looking through these 3-D goggles, I’m looking at the Mars I would see if I were standing there and looking with my own eyes,” says Maxwell. “Then I can use all the stuff evolution put into my brain to think about that 3-D world...shape of the terrain, the height of obstacles, and so on, so that I can plan a safe path for the rover. It’s surprising how many dangers and insights pop out at you when you look at the terrain in 3-D that just aren’t apparent in2-D.Trywalking around for a day with one eye closed and you’ll see what I mean.”

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