Roving Mars

I have been doing a lot of reading about robots this summer in preparation for a couple of classes I am teaching in the fall. The most recent selection I finished off, which I don’t intend to use in any course but thought might be good for background, was Roving Mars by Steve Squyers, the principle scientist for the current Mars rover missions with Spirit and Opportunity. I thought this might be a slightly dry but informative read. In fact, the book was quite engaging.
While there is a ton of detail about the rovers and what they do, the real story is about how Steve and his team went from a couple of people designing a camera to sent up to Mars to designing and constructing an entire Mars expedition including a lander, rover and suite of scientific equipment. There are many, many. many failures along the way, and a lot of uncertainty, up until days before the launch, as to whether the rovers will even be judged stable enough to send into space. Knowing how well, and how flexibly, the rovers have performed, it was fascinating to read about all of the uncertainty and fears about whether they would succeed at even their most basic tasks. In the end, Squyers credits the exceptional successes to exactly the conservative, meticulous engineering that made them second guess the rovers so much during the construction and testing process.
Having the story start back long before the design of the rover, we get to see the decision making that led to sending a robotic vehicle to explore Mars, as well as the other projects that were considered. There is a fair bit of the academic/grant-system politicing included in the book too, with a fair bit of discussion of how teams were recruited and the strategy of what to include in your proposal or not in tell the best story. It is a fun inside look at how much these considerations effect what proposals actually win – and at how much the scientists were able to still keep their eyes on the scientific objectives of the mission even in the midst of that.
Maybe my favorite part of the story was the account of how two rovers were sent to Mars instead of just one. I had always assumed that this was part of the plan from the beginning – part of the initial proposal. But reading the book, the proposal from Squyers’ team that was initially accepted was to send a single rover. It was only in further review of the proposal that NASA asked whether two rovers could be built instead of just one. Squyers says that as soon as this was asked, it was clear to him that a two-rover plan was necessary. It would allow some redundancy both in terms of getting the rover safely down to the surface in functioning order, but also in terms of the odds of hitting a location on the planet that would be interesting to explore. He also notes that had the original proposal included two rovers, the cost estimate would have been so high that the proposal would have been dismissed out of hand. The suggestion had to come from NASA. It was also interesting that having two rovers to construct actually sped up the testing process. The team was on an extremely compressed timeline for construction and testing, and by having two rovers they could be running two tests at once, and even swap parts between the two as necessary to keep things running quickly.
I am a huge Spirit and Opportunity fan so I was pretty sure I would find something to enjoy in this book, but I think that it would be interesting to pretty much anybody who was interested in the modern process of science or curious about space exploration. The passion that everybody involved had for trying to answer the question of whether there was life on Mars is infectious. While the book does not try to address the question of whether we are spending too much, or too little, on space exploration, it is an excellent case for the central role of robotics in the current and probably upcoming generations of missions.

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