We had the boys stay up a little past the start of our nighttime routines to watch the Mars Phoenix probe land on Mars. Or, more precisely, we watched Science Channel’s live coverage of the NASA engineers who made it happen.
I could have done without the constant jabber by the SC announcers, who kept talking over the live audio feed of the Mars Mission controller announcing the progress of the project. We opted for Science Channel because it was easier to watch as a family than the great Ustream video feed of the same, and more informative than the Twitter feed set up by the Phoenix crew to tweet updates on the descent. I can remember watching the Space Shuttle Columbia land in the early 1980s—I took a polaroid of our black-and-white television image as it came back to earth—and hoped that Carter would remember this in the same way.
Phoenix landed in the northern polar region of Mars Sunday night to begin a three-month search for frozen water. A robotic arm will attempt to dig into the hard surface to see what interesting environments of Mars’ past may have left evidence in the sediment. There was a 15-minute delay in the reception of signals from the fourth planet, due to the distance the communication has to travel. Black and white images started pouring in not long after everyone in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, and the University of Arizona cheered the near-perfect landing.
It took nine months to travel some 422 million miles from Earth to Mars, but it was the “seven minutes of terror” during the descent into the atmosphere that had mission control on pins and needles. Getting the 18-foot robot to Mars has been described as more difficult than trying to shoot an arrow from California to Wrigley Field in Chicago. Getting in the ballpark is only half the problem. Most of what could go wrong comes during the dramatic entry into the atmosphere and targeted landing. Past Mars missions have had mixed results, so there was a strong fear that years of work could be lost with the smallest glitch as the most critical time. It turns out, not only did NASA hit their target, but they reached a flat surface … perfect for digging.
What made this event more poignant for me was a recent Alt.CHI talk given by Janet Vertesi of Cornell University last month in Florence. “Seeing like a Rover” was an ethnographic report on the mission designers who conceived, built and cared for the Rover robots from previous Mars missions.
Although they work with two non-humanoid robots located several million miles away, the distributed team that operates the Mars Exploration Rovers demonstrates an uncanny sympathy for their robotic teammates. This paper examines not only how the Rovers are anthropomorphized by the human team, but also how the team takes on characteristics of the Rovers while conducting science and operations on Mars. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with the Mars Rover mission, the paper places the configuration of the user in social context and probes the role of the machine as social resource, with implications for HCI.
It was an interesting talk in a great session. Vertesi described how the designers became so attached to the equipment that they emoted for the machines when they became damaged, often using hand gestures to imitate the motion of the Rover sensors.
Images will continue transmission as Phoenix prepares for its important tasks. Color footage is expected soon.Tags: Janet Vertesi, landing, Mars, NASA, Phoenix, Science Channel, seven minutes of terror, Twitter, University of Arizona