My Time With Oppy

21 February 2019

The piece below was written by Alicia Vaughan, a former USGS Astrogeology researcher who played many roles* on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

False color view of sand ripples at the bottom of Endurance crater, as seen by Opportunity.

The night Opportunity landed was the MOST exciting night of my life. My children are always offended by that, but it’s true. Lots of people have kids, but few people have the chance to be “in the room where it happened,” at JPL, landing a robot on another planet. Seeing those first images come down was thrilling. They revealed sedimentary layers – bedrock on Mars! Opportunity had rolled into a small crater - what we later called the interplanetary hole-in-one. I got to experience the unabashed joy of scientists and engineers who had spent the better part of a decade of their careers designing, building, testing, and programming to get Opportunity successfully to Meridiani Planum, Mars. And there I was, a recent graduate having an almost out-of-body experience. Is this really happening to me? Do I really get to work with these brilliant people, on this mission?

I did, for nearly 8 years. I started out monitoring the downlink data for one instrument – making sure the instrument was performing correctly, processing the data, helping with interpretation and making plans for the next observations. I lived on Mars time – using blackout curtains to try and block out Earth’s daylight cycles. Since a Martian day is slightly longer than an Earth day, I had to report for my shift a little bit later each day, just marching around the clock starting at 2:00 am one day 7:00 am a few days later. Once, I actually pulled up to Starbucks at 1:00 in the morning and was so disappointed when they weren’t open. My dog really struggled with Mars time. He did not understand why I was making him go outside in the middle of the night in the pouring rain to potty, and then I would come home and sleep all day while he barked at the world outside.

I went on to do many different jobs on the rovers – both Spirit and Opportunity. I wrote commands for different instruments, building part of the “upload” package each day. I made mistakes. Once I made a conversion error that pointed an instrument in a dangerous direction. I had to work back through my mistakes to determine exactly what I had commanded and explain to a senior engineer what I had done, and then I worried for weeks that they might ask me to step down, or that I would never be taken seriously again. But I kept working, and they let me continue to grow.

I modeled the power usage of uplink plans to make sure it would all work, and then worked with the team to readjust if we needed to. I merged all the commands – from engineering housekeeping tasks like when to relay data and when to sleep, to all instrument commands, and put them into one giant sequence for review before uplink. I worked on the science team, then with the science team as an engineer. I learned so much about teamwork, competing goals and perspectives, and how to disagree politely, or get the team to a consensus. I was inspired every day by my colleagues, some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. I would think, “Wow, I
want to be like that when I grow up.” But I was growing up. I got married and had my first child during my time on this mission. I could call myself a leader on the MER team.

I loved sharing Mars with students. During my time on the mission, I took every opportunity to work with students – everything from summer camps to science fairs to classroom talks in both Pasadena and Flagstaff. I loved it so much, I thought that maybe I should move on and be a teacher. So I did. I love working with students and I have never looked back.

I helped take Opportunity all the way to Endeavour Crater before I moved on. I worked thousands of sols on Mars. It was a highlight of my life. She made us all so proud, and she felt like family. It was truly special. A job well done indeed.




*Here is a list of Alicia's many roles on the MER mission:

PDL - Payload Downlink Lead

PUL - Payload Uplink Lead

KOP - Keeper of the Plan

TAPSIE - Tactical Activity Planner Sequence Integration Engineer

TUL - Tactical Uplink Lead

SE - Systems Engineer