Making Tracks on Mars
"Sojourner" Excerpts

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Here are selected excerpts from "Sojourner: An Insider's View of the Mars Pathfinder Mission."

This is only a taste of what you'll find in the book...

From the Prologue:

April 1985

"I can't claim to be an expert on Artificial Intelligence."

The light in the office was dim. I was splitting my attention between the two interviewers. The dark-haired man to my left smiled. "We'll learn about it together," Neville Marzwell said with an indeterminate accent. He seemed kind, yet somehow mysterious.

Ed Kan, sitting directly across the table from me, was ready to finish things up. He had a project that should have started some time before, but hadn't. Marzwell had people working his own project, but needed more. "We'd like you to start Monday."

It was my second interview at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

I had been working at my own company for about three years. My partners were mostly brilliant but temperamental engineers. We had been designing hardware, doing software consulting, and writing venture capital proposals that never got funded. When I decided I wanted a regular paycheck, I began sending out résumés and wondering who would hire a systems engineer a few years out of school whose only experience since was as a struggling entrepreneur.

One of my first interviews was at JPL in Pasadena. I got a call from an old friend I'd worked with when we were both graduate students at UCLA a few years before. He was moving to the east coast, and his position in the JPL Advanced Teleoperation group was opening up. This group worked on Space Shuttle flight experiments, designed robotic manipulators to be operated remotely either by astronauts in space or people on the ground, and researched how to control these devices effectively from hundreds or thousands of miles away. My friend was recommending me for his position, and would I like to come in and meet with his supervisor? I went in, met Ed Kan and others, had lunch in the JPL cafeteria with his robotics group.

The interview had seemed to go well. But JPL didn't call. I sent out more résumés. After a few weeks I made the "follow-up" call. "We decided not to fill the position," Kan told me.

Two months later, copies of my résumés were completing their meanderings through the labyrinths of several companies' personnel offices. The number of callbacks increased. Amidst this, Ed Kan called me. "We'd like to do a second interview." How soon? "Tomorrow."

Ten days later I started work. I could have waited for other offers. I almost certainly could have wrangled a higher salary somewhere else. But I'd always wanted to be in the Space business. And for that, JPL was the place to be.


July 5, 1997

For the first time, the Sojourner rover's six cleated wheels had made tracks in the butterscotch-hued Martian soil of Ares Vallis. Nearby sat the Pathfinder lander, Sojourner’s home and protector during the seven-month voyage to Mars. Inches from the rover's wheels was the end of the ramp down which it had just driven. It was mid-afternoon: a dimmer, smaller sun was halfway down the sky.

On Earth, the rover team was ecstatic. Images of the rover had just arrived from far away. The mission control area was wild with cheers and applause. "... six wheels on soil!" announced the rover coordinator.

Sojourner was fulfilling its promise. We now had a fully functional healthy rover on the surface of an alien world. The rover team was ready to drive the machine we had built and trained to operate. As a member of that team, I was both awed and humbled by what we had done, and what we were about to do.

It was time to go exploring.

Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech

From the launch of Pathfinder:

About a minute before the launch time, people got quiet. I heard someone reciting a countdown. We all stared at the Delta. Then the base of the rocket got suddenly brighter. And the rocket was moving. "That's it!" a voice shouted. Everyone cheered and applauded. Almost everyone. I could only watch. I willed the rocket into the sky.

There was no sound yet from the rising rocket. It was too far away. It climbed into the sky, so bright that I thought I should look away, but didn't. All the clichés about "bright as the sun" were true. I could see a region around the flame in my vision where my retinas were saturated. A small part of my mind wondered if I'd see all right after this was over.

The crowd spontaneously cheered again. I wasn't sure why, except maybe that it was clear that the rocket was flying true. The sound reached us finally across the water. A kind of staccato roar, voice of pure power. I couldn't see the Delta itself any more, just the flame and the trail of exhaust that drew an arc between it and the pad. It looked like it was aimed straight at the moon.

The flame was smaller now, but it seemed just as bright. Then it stuttered briefly, dimming and brightening again. There was the shortest pause, and the six ground-lit solid rocket boosters became visible as they peeled away from the Delta, their work complete. The three air-lit boosters had taken over. Another cheer.

The flame of the engines was rapidly becoming a bright red star in the sky.

The jettisoned solid rocket boosters had been left behind. They formed a flickering constellation. I knew that they must be on their way to falling into the sea, but for the moment they seemed to be hanging in the sky, six twinkling lights, a new Pleiades.

Only one minute later, the air-lit solid rocket motors were jettisoned as well. But the Delta was already too distant for me to discern the boosters falling away, though some others in the crowd claimed they could. Just two minutes into its mission, the spacecraft was traveling over a mile and a half per second.

The spot that was Pathfinder was tiny now, hundreds of miles away. I lost sight of it.

The champagne bottles were coming out. Some people had tears streaming down their faces and didn't even realize it. The rover crew gathered as most of the other watchers headed back toward their cars. We all shook hands. "Good work! Good job!" everyone said. Could I really take credit for what I had just seen? I wasn't sure.

Allen Sirota raised a cup. "To the rover!" We all drank the toast.

We started packing up to follow the rest back along the jetty. Again we all shook hands. I found myself repeating the same statement to everyone: We're in business!"

With Pathfinder on its way to Mars, many people's jobs were complete. Mine was just starting.

Courtesy NASA