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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    From failure to redemption

    Principal Investigator Peter Smith, left, and Senior Engineer Roger Tanner, stand near a model of the Phoenix Mars Lander that is on display in the Phoenix Science Operations Center.
    Principal Investigator Peter Smith, left, and Senior Engineer Roger Tanner, stand near a model of the Phoenix Mars Lander that is on display in the Phoenix Science Operations Center.

    The world of science has its own story of trials and tribulations, resulting in one of the most successful scout missions NASA has seen.

    Meet the prominent men of the Phoenix Mars Lander: Peter Smith and Roger Tanner, the comeback kids of space exploration.

    Smith and Tanner first crossed paths back in 1997 during NASA’s Mars Pathfinder mission, where both scientists put their Masters in Optics degrees to work developing cameras for the rover. Soon after the success of the Pathfinder mission, Smith wrote a proposal to send another mission to Mars in 1999, called the Mars Polar Lander.

    Seven minutes of terror

    “”My expectation was for it to be a lot like Pathfinder, which was a huge success. There was a huge explosion of interest because of our mission, and everybody wanted to see my pictures! All of a sudden, reporters were just lined up out the door and they want to know everything about you,”” Smith said. “”So for the Polar Lander, we expected the same thing. We were talking about how we would broadcast our first pictures, and we worked out all the different ways that we could do it better than last time.””

    Tanner mentioned the tremendous amount of work and time that had gone into the construction of the Lander. Not only was the Mars Polar Lander team working tirelessly on the current mission, but also planning ahead for the 2001 Surveyor Mission.

    “”We worked so hard for months. … I think I worked 80 hours a week for seven months straight. I would work until I got too tired to stay awake, go to sleep and then wake up and do it all over again,”” Tanner said. “”We were working so hard between both the Polar Lander and the ’01 mission.””

    The public eye watched the Mars Polar Lander team eagerly prior to the touchdown of the Lander on Mars. The event even had to call for security measures to keep the media in line, Tanner said.

    However, during the “”seven minutes of terror,”” the descent of the Lander into the Martian atmosphere, the Mars Polar Lander encountered difficulties and crashed, and the mission was deemed a failure, Smith said.

    ‘Failure is not something you prepare for.’

    After the excitement of the media attention, the extreme attention to detail and the optimistic view toward future Mars missions, the team said the failure of the Mars Polar Lander was devastating.

    “”After all the preparation, what we didn’t take into account was getting nothing,”” Smith said. “”Failure is not something you prepare for. It just happens. All of a sudden, reality set in that we lost the mission, and we were not going to get one single picture after four years of hard work.””

    “”You have probably seen that famous picture with people holding up the signs, ‘Mars Polar Lander Phone Home.’ After the first couple of days, we were all in high spirits, but after not hearing anything, it was really depressing,”” Tanner said of the experience. Tanner said that his team tried to recover from the Mars Polar Lander and look toward the future 2001 mission. “”But, two months later, after they did the failure analysis on the Mars Polar Lander, they then cancelled the ’01 mission, so it was like ‘BAM,’ we lost all our future work.””

    Smith said that because of the canceling of the 2001 Surveyor Mission, along with the cancellation of a 2003 mission that Smith proposed, he was forced to fire the 30 people who worked under him – all but one, Roger Tanner.

    With no future work, no income and no team, the twosome did what most people would deem “”gutsy.”” They went back to work.

    “”My career was basically in the toilet. I had no projects, I had nothing,”” Smith said. “”But I wasn’t ready to give up. I definitely wasn’t ready to retire.””

    The return of the Optics degrees

    It was back to the drawing board for Smith and Tanner, and the scientists were forced to start from scratch working their way back into the business, Smith said.

    With some smaller projects supplying their salary, including a Japanese-controlled mission to an asteroid and a position on the Mars Rover Team, opportunity came knocking when NASA was not ready to let the Red Planet out of its sight.

    NASA sent out an announcement of opportunity for a scientist to plan an entire mission to Mars – not just an instrument, but a whole mission from start to finish, Smith said.

    “”This got me thinking, I could build a camera for every one of those proposals! So I started calling up all the people who I knew would propose it and said, ‘Hey, I know you guys need a camera, and I’ve got one!’ So Roger and I were designing cameras like crazy. We were working on six different proposals.””

    Smith and Tanner started work on designing cameras for all sorts of concepts: flying around like gliders, proposals for landing on the polar ice cap and sticking an instrument down in the ice, even a balloon that hovers just above the atmosphere. Smith and Tanner designed it all.

    Something old, something new

    But it was in 2002 in a call from Ames Research that gave Smith a moment of déjÇÿ vu. They told Smith of an idea to use the 2001 Surveyor spacecraft that they kept in a box at Lockheed Martin, reuse the original instruments designed for the spacecraft and they wanted Smith to be principal investigator.

    “”They got me all pumped up on the idea to by principal investigator, and I went off to think about what to do with the mission to Mars using the existing equipment,”” Smith said.

    There was a “”lucky”” instance where a professor at the UA had another orbiter instrument discover permafrost in the polar regions, Smith explained.

    “”So it was perfect,”” he said. “”We can dig into that ice and verify that it is ice, and we can see if this is a place that life exists.””

    Because the team would reuse the Surveyor Lander, the whole mission would be relatively inexpensive – in the space science world, that is. Along with the low overall cost, Tanner said that the mere fact that the Lander already existed made it particularly attractive to NASA.

    “”The Lander was already 80 percent built. We were going to modify some of the parts, but this was ultimately what we were going to fly,”” said Tanner, who was named head engineer. “”Everybody else had something drawn on the board and projections, but it’s hard to beat something that is already there.””

    The team even demonstrated to NASA officials how they would deploy the solar panels on the spacecraft, right there in front of them.

    “”This wasn’t a theory. This wasn’t a model. This was the actual thing,”” Tanner said. “”This is what is going to fly! It really made the proposal really strong.””

    The Phoenix team tried to emphasize the fact that it was not just a proposal; the team was just going to revamp some existing hardware and re-fly it.

    “”After our presentation, the NASA official said to the audience, ‘I want everyone who worked on the Mars Polar Lander or the Mars ’01 mission to stand up,'”” recalled Tanner. “”The NASA review team turned around and 95 percent of the auditorium was standing up. It wasn’t like we were a bunch of new people who have never seen this before. These are the guys who designed the original stuff in the first place.””

    Thus, the team won the proposal in 2003, and the Phoenix Mars Lander was on its way to become reality.

    A rocky start…

    The first couple of months were rough, as the team set out working 80-hour work weeks, once again working underneath the constraints of a tight budget and a timeline, Tanner said.

    “”We had a period of three or four months where we had to hire everybody and get them up to speed. Our budget didn’t allow for us to just call up somebody and say, ‘Hey, if we pay you $120,000, will you come and work on electronics for my camera?'”” Tanner said.

    “”Most of the good engineers were already taken. They liked what they were doing, so they didn’t want to drop everything and jump into this pressure cooker,”” Tanner added.

    The kinks were worked out eventually, and the Phoenix was ready for launch on schedule in May 2007. However, with the Mars Polar Lander still resonating in many team members’ minds, they relied on the principal investigator, Smith, for reassurance.

    “”Emotionally, I am kind of an optimistic guy,”” Smith said. “”But my optimism was offset by an entire building of pessimists over at the Jet Propulsion Lab.””

    …And smooth landings

    Smith and the Phoenix team had to write press releases for every point of failure on the seven-minute journey through the atmosphere.

    “”‘The Parachute Doesn’t Release,’ ‘The Heat Shield Doesn’t Pop Off,’ ‘The Legs Don’t Deploy,’ everything you can think of that might go wrong, we had to write it,”” Smith explained. “”But as we went through the descent, the press guy was tearing up these press releases, because they weren’t needed. ‘Parachutes opened? Great!’ He tore it up and threw it up in the air. ‘Legs deployed? Great!’ tore up another one and threw it up in the air. It was raining confetti of all the press releases of all the possible failures that didn’t happen!””

    The entire Phoenix Lander team, along with Tanner, eagerly awaited in “”the pit,”” or the Lander test area in Tucson, to await the result of their years of hard work while Smith was in Pasadena at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.

    “”It landed just perfect, and everybody just erupted,”” recalled Tanner with a grin. “”About 45 minutes after landing we got our first pictures down, and everybody was cheering.””

    “”It’s like you don’t breathe. You are just so appalled at the excitement of it all,”” Smith remembered. “”And when it landed, everything was good. We were ready for our mission.””

    When asked if Smith let out some tears of joy, Smith said with a smirk, “”I don’t have to tell you that.””

    More than just a mission

    The Lander’s namesake, the myth of the Phoenix bird, also has a personal meaning, Smith said.

    “”In the myth of the phoenix, the bird bursts into flames at the end of his life, and from the ashes comes the new phoenix bird,”” Smith said. “”That was the same for me as it was for the equipment. And fortunately, we were able to come out of the ashes. We were able to come out and do more things.””

    Currently the Phoenix Mars Lander is experiencing the beginning of the Martian winter, and its mission has come to a close. However, for Smith and Tanner, the rough journey to accomplishing a successful mission to the poles of Mars was worth every moment.

    “”The way I look at it right now, we have done 100 percent,”” Smith said. “”And now, we are aiming for 105 percent.””

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