I visit Mars…at École des Mines de Paris

A historic past, with modern, state-of-the-art research

The École des Mines de Paris was founded in 1783 and is one of the oldest French higher education institutions in engineering. It’s the right place to go if you like to be surrounded by super-intelligent people who love talking about research, and in the case of the workshop I attended, about the Mars Rover project.

The lecture was “Design Framework for Telerobotic Mission Operations” and presented by William J. Clancey, Chief Scientist, Human Centered Computing at the NASA Ames Research Center and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

I was excited to attend this lecture because I had previously visited NASA Ames Research Center and interviewed Dr. Michael McGreevy to observe how he and his team were working with telepresence to create a virtual roadmap that the Rovers would follow on Mars. At that time, my interest was the computing power behind the Mars Rover project.

When I attended the lecture this week, I was surprised to learn that a successful mission starts with…good communication.

Do you assume that having the most advanced technology or generous funding are the primary success factors?  So did I, until Dr. Clancey gave an overview of the key challenges of designing a mission to Mars:

  • How to motivate people from different scientific disciplines to communicate and collaborate
  • Reach a consensus on the scope and parameters of the project
  • Next, bring in the engineers, to create a design that reflects the above input from the geologists and computer scientists
  • Everyone needs to be happy with the end result, or as Dr. Clancey ironically noted, “agree on an acceptable level of unhappiness.”

So apparently, whether you are trying to plan a multi-billion dollar project on Mars OR agree on a vacation destination with a group of friends, the key is to engage your brain, communicate and listen carefully, and then try to find a good compromise that works for everyone.

The planning process for the Rover project was multi-faceted:

  • Total Systems Perspectives (facilities, processes, scheduling, tools…). This aspect is addressed by Human Centered Computing.
  • Participant Observation (how people want to observe, learn and analyze).
    This multidisciplinary focus requires collaboration between seemingly unlikely participants, like linguists and anthropologists interacting with computer scientists.

The Rovers’ development cycle spanned 10 years, during which time the process was impacted by new advancements in technology (which replaced previous designs), funding and people leaving or joining the teams.

Despite an ongoing effort to move forward in cognitive harmony, there were still glitches

Dr. Clancey provided some examples, such as when engineers installed the panoramic camera near the top of the Rover, assuming that this height would provide a broad territorial view and useful visual data. The geologists were in an uproar…they needed the camera to be as low to the ground as possible, so that it provided very close-up details of Mars’ surface. Back to the drawing board…

Modern heroic explorers

Throughout the project, there was the ever-present feeling among the teams that they were building a legacy of knowledge for the future or “data for the ages”. In fact, Dr. Clancey said that many members of the project teams regarded the design process as a “voyage of discovery”, not unlike early explorers who went to sea to discover new lands.  It could be described with a ship-like analogy, with engineers designing the ‘boat’ and the scientists were on the ‘boat’, taking a ‘heroic journey.’

Much more than ‘just science’

The following excerpt from an official NASA press release about the demise of the Spirit Rover is a good example of the strong emotional connection that project teams develop with their mission.

“Spirit is not dead; it has just entered another phase of its long life,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We told the world last year that attempts to set the beloved robot free may not be successful. It looks like Spirit’s current location on Mars will be its final resting place.”

Does this emotionalism over an expensive hunk of high-tech machinery seem over-the-top?

Not really, when you consider the huge commitment of time, energy and intellect that the teams have made over the years. While Spirit was still rolling around on Mars, the teams worked with daily transmissions of data (referred to as uplink and downlink). This created a strong psychological and emotional sense of being linked to the Rover’s success, effectiveness and safety. The teams even lived on Mars time, patterning their working hours to the rotation of Mars. Imagine what it was like to mentally ‘live on Mars’ for 8+ hours a day and probably continue to think about the Rover, even in the shower or supermarket.

Educating new generations of thinkers and explorers

The École des Mines is a very old establishment, as I said at the start of my story, but the reception area is very modern and efficient. It isn’t until you enter the corridors that you realize how old the building is. The wood you see has a pleasant luster that can only come from the passage of time. An impressive old staircase spirals upwards to unseen rooms.  And the stone steps leading to the maze of lecture halls are worn in the middle from the endless procession of feet over the years. Generations of students, professors and researchers, hurrying along the passageways, consumed with their thoughts and ideas.  As I left the building, I felt the echoes of their discoveries, reverberating over the years.

I can’t recap everything that was covered in this fascinating hour-long lecture. But if you want additional information on this general topic, I’m providing Dr. Clancey’s web site because there is a downloadable file called “Being Scientific on Mars”.

Please don’t be an idiot and send this guy an email with a million questions about the Rover project or a stream of consciousness brain-dump about what you think of the Red Planet.

Anything — believe me — you want to know about NASA projects can be found here.