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the ship is waiting

On Tuesday, TechTV sent me to JPL to interview some of the people responsible for the Mars Exploration Rover mission for a Screen Savers segment that will air next week.

I was lucky enough to land interviews with Dr. Joy Crisp, who is one of the project scientists, one of the guys who drives the rovers (who I can't find any web data on, so I'm pretty sure I've gotten his name wrong, like an idiot) and Julie Townsend, who is the Tactical Uplink Lead (how cool does that sound?)

I thought I may be a little silly ("So, tell me, if you had to reverse the polarity on the rover's main deflector shield . . . ") but mostly serious ("What's the data transfer rate from the Rover to the DSN, and what protocol do you use to talk to it?").

When I was there, though, I found it very difficult to joke around, because I am so in awe of these people. I mean, I pretended to do shit in space. These people really do, and their work will have a far greater impact on history than mine. Oh, and they're all super nice and patiently answered each question I asked like they hadn't heard it a thousand times already. When faced with an intelligent scientist who is passionate about her work, who is taking time out of her day to talk to me, it just seems wrong to ask some flip question about how many Martians they've had to photoshop out of the images.

We talked a lot about what they expected to learn from this mission, and how relieved they were that it's working so well, especially considering all the losses they've had from recent Mars missions. Their optimism and excitement was infectious, and electric, and I was very grateful to be there to share some of it with them.

So I was *incredibly* sad this afternoon when I read that Spirit hasn't talked to JPL for 24 hours, and they're afraid that they may have lost contact with the rover.

There's still some hope that they can recover from what is being called a "very serious anomaly," but that hope is fading fast.

So if anyone reading this could, you know, maybe look up toward Mars tonight, and send a little Mojo to Spirit, that'd be cool.

UPDATED @ 1800 PST: Spirit Beeps It's Alive And "Commandable": NASA Official

NASA officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have confirmed that the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has responded to an emergency command this morning by sending back a radio beep -- an event which had been stated as a possibility, but not a certainty, at the end of this morning's JPL press conference. "This means it's commandable," a JPL spokeswoman told SpaceDaily.

(Link found via trackback. Thanks, Grant!)


Oh, and I think I made comments work again. I guess that if you can read this, it means I did something right.

Wil, great to see the Comments working. Hey, if it took this long to make this work, we can understand why the Rover communications broke down. Hopefully they'll get it fixed, especially if you're gonna talk about it on Screen Savers! And don't take your importance too flippantly, Star Trek and many other SciFis keep the spirit of space exploration alive and exciting. Seeng a kid like Wesley in space has made kids all over the world long to be out there as well.

They sent a 'ping' to it this morning... essentially instructing it "hey, if you get this, send us a ping back". It pinged back at 10:35 PST. So that's a Good Sign, at least.

W00t! Comments n' such! Er, I don't have much to say, but that never stopped me before. Coolness about the Spirit interview. Was that lady the same one who was on The Daily Show last week? She was very smart, but sadly TDS was really not the forum for her.

Whoo Hoo, go SPRIT, ping away baby!! - Will, I share your awe at what these folks are actually doing, can you belive, we live in the Space Age \m/ \m/

Bummer. I was extremely interested in this whole thing too and I was just staring with my mouth open when I read the news. :(:(:( Hope they fix it soon.

I guess I can't spell - SPIRIT - Wil sorry


Many's a time I've sat at JPL interviewing scientists for various missions, and I know exactly how you feel about interviewing these folks. Even though some were friends or colleagues of mine (and in one case for Mars Pathfinder, one of them was a former student of mine), I was still in awe of their work and their enthusiasm.

I read that they are getting a continual tone, but no data, so as the old saying goes, "It's not dead yet!"

"...it just seems wrong to ask some flip question about how many Martians they've had to photoshop out of the images..."


You should have asked her, dude.

(She'd have said "on average, four".)

Wow, the burning up people at the prom comment in your, er ... comments section, is just another reason why I like you so. Being a red haired girl named Carrie was a whole lot of fun in a small town where Stephen King was the popular read. You get and make references that us other 30 year old literate geeks who grew up with the tv and movies of our generation really find amusing.

I hope that they find Spirit. I remember the last decade or so, watching society forget that we had space, that we could go into it, go forward and explore. Watching all of my peers who were watching ST:NG, who were wondering why we had given up on the moon. We need to have that again, a generation full of kids looking up into the sky, imagining themselves as astronauts, they way kids did when my mom was young. At least ST:NG, whatever its faults were, helped to keep that spirit alive when nothing else was.

As someone who has to interview people regularly, a little humor is usually appreciated by the interviewee -- especially if they've had to answer the same questions for several different people. So you follow-up a question like, "How many Martians did you have to photoshop out?" with, "Is what you've found so far consistent with what you anticipated?"

Glad to see the comments back.

As to spirit, sorry to hear this. Prob find those four photosopped out aliens have it up on blocks and stripping it down for their ride.

Adana, Turkey

I can't weight to see that segment on the Screensavers. You lucky duck to interview the people at the JPL that sound so cool.

According to the Mission Status Center:

As project officials reported at the end of today's news conference, Mission Control received a radio signal from Spirit just before 12 noon EST. This simple message from the rover confirms it had received a transmission from Earth, and encourages engineers since it proves that Spirit is still alive and functioning.

Seems like its OK anyways.

Like everyone, glad to see comments back up and running again. I will send my Mojo to Spirit tonight when I can really put my *all* into it!

Wil, you rock!

Here's some mojo going to Sprit now, and tonight when I see Mars!

I'm sorry- did you just suggest we send MOJO?

Hey Wil,
It's completely possible a web search on the name of the driver you interviewed doesn't come up with results. I saw those job ads and they only required a bachelors in physics, geology or astro, so it's possible that he doesn't have a major scientific web presence.

And being at Palomar right now, I'm sending my mojo towards Mars and my collegues at JPL. . . .

Heh... cool. Well, not that they lost communication with it. My company helped them out with that stuff. http://www.ghs.com/news/230811j.html

Hopefully, it wasn't our fault. :)

One has to wonder what happened for the rover to suddenly go silent, but I know. IT'S THE MARTIANS!!! They got word of the upcoming visit by living, breathing beings and wanted time to hide the WMDs, so they shut it down.

Yeah, I'm onto them......

Oh, I'm looking forward to your segment on the Screen Savers, assuming they'll still want it if the Spirit can't be revived (no pun intended)

WELL THEN! Reading the little "John Travolta/Nancy Allen" thing was a little scary. and the little code box thing is weird...But congrats on making comments work again. I'll definitely send some mojo Mars' way :)

to tell you the truth I expected the whole thing to go wrong from the get go. This world won't allow fellow man to have the cure for cancer it sure isn;t going to pitch in a few extra billion to make something out in outerspace work correctly. Sorry to sound so negative but that how I see it,

Correct me if i'm wrong but I'm curious to how you didn't mention the British losing contact with the Beagle or anything about the mission they were on. I'm upset that nasa have lost contact with the Rover but I was also pretty upset on Christmas Day when Beagle lost contact to us, at least the American Rover still got there, seems to me none of you over the pond, realise that we also are (were) in this "hunt for life on Mars".

Well, I've got some amazing mojo to share with the folks at NASA.

A film I worked on has been picked up for US distribution!

There must be something going right in the world so I'll share with the Mars Lander.

RE: Helen

Not everyone on "this side of the pond" ignored Beagles plight. I hoped along with you guys and kept up to date. I was very unhappy that Beagle seemed to completely fall off people's maps, while Spirit gained the world's interest.


maybe one of the WWdN readers can explain this -- what is the legal basis for the federal government's assertion of a power to conduct space exploration? I thought we had a federal gov't of enumerated powers, and launching space probes isn't in the Constitution, last I read it.

In a less legally technical vein, what is the moral justification for forcibly taxing people so the gov't can spend their money on space projects? why is this a legitimate government expense? how does it help secure our natural rights to have the gov't do these things? if there is a commercial benefit, why wouldn't private persons voluntarily fund such projects (other than, of course, the fact that the taxpayer has already picked up the bill)?

just curious.

Excuse me, I know I said "none of you" but I didn't mean that I apologise, I tend to generalise, my mistake. It's late and im sleepy.

btw, as for the photoshopping martians part, you need to phrase the question similar to:

"Will you ever stop photoshopping martians out of the Spirit photos?". Ala "Apu, will you ever stop selling spoiled meat?"


This makes me sad and disappointed. I will send lots of Mojo Spirit's way tonight.
This is the first I have heard of it, thanks for being so tuned in. :)
BTW, wonderful site.

ludwig -

Legal basis? It's in the Constitution. It goes like this:

You elect people to represent you in the government. You give them the power to decide for you how much tax you pay and what they can spend it on. If you don't like how they represent you, you vote for someone else next time around.

At some point in time, people who represented a majority of this country voted to create NASA and fund it with tax dollars, hence space travel as a government function.

There are a LOT of things that the government does that aren't in the Constitution. And you give them the power to do it.

I hope you are being ironic, Chris B. While I agree that is the way things work in practice today, that is positively NOT what our Constitution says. It says, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." That means that the federal gov't can only do what it is empowered to do, and no more. In contrast, what you've described is the classic (and hideous) "tyranny of the majority" scenario, where we have no rights (or property) but what the almighty state graciously suffers us to have. That makes us a nation of grovelers, not free persons.

And, no, I gave them no such power to launch space probes. I gave them the power to maintain a post office, to coin money, etc. (it's all there in Article I). In 1868 (or so), I gave them the power to enforce the 14th Amendment. But, if it's not on the list, I did NOT give it to them, and no one else did, either. The arrogant federal government may have assumed these powers by force, or one part of the gov't may have pretended to "give" it to the other, but that's not exactly legitimate, now is it?

I can just see it, a picture of a still and silent mars rover. You then hear drums from a distance. It gets closer. Finally, the pink Energizer bunny passes in front of the rover with the comments spoken ' It keeps going and going... " You then see the rover's camera picture fade to a white dot.

Hmmm. Maybe not.

How did this become about the constitution?!!

The majority always get their way, most folk like space exploration even if the cost makes us gasp.

Bad news about Spirit, but isnt there another rover on its way?

Those punk martians with the spanners will have their work cut out for them.....

According to what I've heard, they're saying it may be a software problem. Damn those Microsoft E-mail viruses! :-)

I guess what they're going to try is some sort of remote dump and reload of the software. Tricky, but it should be do-able assuming the hardware hasn't gone casters-up...

Oh, and don't forget, Spirit's twin Opportunity will be landing on Saturday. Save a little mojo to project its way as well.

If you guys want to argue about the importance of the space program, just think about this. The space program is responsible for many of our modern technologies and scientific discoveries, which are to numerable to list. I recommend checking out nasa.gov for more details.

I suppose it's about the Constitution because, in the words of Stanley Fish, one of the Left's darling academic postmodernists, everything is policital.

And, things get political really fast whenever a government program costs $15.5 billion (for fiscal 2004). That's $15.5 billion that we the people didn't get to choose how to spend. Washington decided for us.

I also thought it might be about the Constitution because I this site is openly geared toward people who think themselves "politically active and aware" (even if that doesn't include those who "passionately believe in progressive causes.") Unless, of course, being against "freedom from government intrusion" doesn't include opposing the annual seizure of $15.5 billion from the people to spend on projects of questionable and speculative value, especially high-dollar robot projects that never seem to have a money-back guarantee when they crap out in the first ten minutes, and especially those projects that plainly exceed the federal government's legal authority to begin in the first place.

That's how.

What I had heard is that the Spirit was waiting to hear that you have your comments back up before beginning communications again. It posted here, but I won't say which one.... :)

Sending mojo your way :)

Type-o above...sending mojo *spirit's* way..:)

I won't presume to tell anyone what to do, but I think you will find the WWdN comments section to be a poor place for an arguement about constitutional law. Actually, argueing anywhere on the internet seems pretty fruitless. Now if you were to write your own essay and post it somewhere appropriate on the web, that might perhaps make people think or even persuade them of something. Just a humble suggestion. YMMV.

whee! comments!

shortly after they started showing photos from this mission I was suddenly totally blown away by the whole concept of remote-controlling a man-made machine that is millions of miles away. That alone is such an amazing technological achievement it's mind-blowing.

I haven't been so happy to hear a simple 'beep' since Pong!

jbay- I got to meet one of those guys who drives the rover. He's as excited as the rest of us are.

I think that's one of the reasons all these missions are so "personal" for people like us . . . the folks who are running the project could easily be part of our gaming groups, or science clubs, or whatever.

And the argument about the Constitution has no place in this thread. Please take it elsewhere.

Does anybody find it ironic that day the comments section goes back up, the signal is lost from the rover. I'm not implying anything, but I just find it a little strange.

Just kidding, sending my mojo the direction of Mars tonight

First time poster long time reader.

Very exciting post -- I'm so psyched I can comment and tell you that I enjoyed it. Funny, sad, inspiring.

Thanks for doing this, Wil.



Should have loaded OS X...

Looking forward to your Screen Savers segment next week Wil. At the end of Wednesday's show then mentioned it would be coming up. Patrick made special mention of Stand By Me and how great you were in it.


January 23, 2004
NASA's Spirit rover communicated with Earth in a signal detected by NASA's Deep Space Network antenna complex near Madrid, Spain, at 12:34 Universal Time (4:34 a.m. PST) this morning.


(on a less upbeat note, there are some Perl errors showing up on the page. :/
MT::App::Comments=HASH(0x810ad60) Use of uninitialized value in sprintf at lib/MT/Template/Context.pm line 1187.
MT::App::Comments=HASH(0x810ad60) print() on closed filehandle MT::SCode::OUTFILE at lib/MT/SCode.pm line 50.
MT::App::Comments=HASH(0x810ad60) print() on closed filehandle MT::SCode::OUTFILE at lib/MT/SCode.pm line 50.

On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing wrong with watching Nancy Allen, dancing or otherwise.

In any case...

I'm really hoping JPL is able to get Spirit up and working and communicating again. (duh) And I sure hope Opportunity does as well as Spirit when it lands tomorrow. Except for the part with the loss of communications.

Wil, I have a question for you. When people ask you how it is justifiable to spend billions of dollars annually on the space program when things are so messed up here on Earth, how do you respond? My wife's opinion, which she holds very strongly, is that it is not justifiable. I strongly disagree with her, but I've never had any luck getting her to understand (or even see as valid) my point of view. Any suggestions?

Talk about your ups and downs this whole mission has played with my emotions to no end.
I am so thrilled that we have some form of control again.


Kudos on the JPL interview - must have been cool. I'm also glad to hear that Spirit is at least alive. When I heard that it had gone AWOL, I had two thoughts:

(1) It was probably running Windows

(2) When we do finally get to Mars, we're going to be tripping over all of the failed unmanned vehicles.

For all the Mars-interested people out there (including you, Wil ;):

The european Mars-Express space-craft has made some very spectacular 3D pictures of the marsian surface and confirmed the presence of water ice on the south polar cap of mars. The images were released today on a press conference here at the European Space Agencies HQ in Darmstadt (Germany). (which is also my hometown, btw, so I "feel" kind of close to the developments, hehe ;)

Its a bit sad, that Mars-Express was kind of ignored by the international media, after the failed landing of "Beagle", though todays developments predominate most european news headlines (but not CNN's ;).

You can read todays article from ESA here (english):
This article in the german news magazine DER SPIEGEL features all of the pictures:
By the way, if you are interested in great journalism from an european point of view, you can read some of SPIEGELīs news here in english ;)

Greetings from Darmstadt, Germany

This just off the JPL Marsrover page ---

"The flight team for NASA's Spirit received data from the rover in a communication session that began at 13:26 Universal Time (5:26 a.m. PST) and lasted 20 minutes at a data rate of 120 bits per second."

SPIRIT LIVES !!!!!!!! Whooooo Hooooo

The little wascal has spiwit.

Has what, sir?


Yes. He did, sir.

No, no. Spiwit, siw. Uh, bwavado. A touch of dewwing-do.

Oh, ahhh... about eleven sir.

I started a thread in the soapbox as a place to continue the constitutionality-of-jpl meme.
(opening in a new window works better.)

Holy crap! I went to HS with Julie Townsend! Friend of a friend and all that. Hey, Wil, if you haven't done the interview yet, see if you can get a "Where'd you grow up, where'd you go to school" question in. Gotta get some publicity for the hometown, y'know.

Is there anything WWdN mojo can't do?

Do you think we can harness it's power next November? Or does mojo not work for that?

Did you know photoshop has a thing on their site about how you're not supposed to verb their little photoshop trademark? No photoshopped photoshopping for you. Yep. er... Nope.

hey wil,

i heard about the loss of contact with the rover on the radio, (i'm in the UK), and someone had sent in an e mail saying,
"hi, we have taken the batteries out of your little car, as we are sick of it riding around on our roof!!!"

i thought that was really hilarious! i hope that is what happened...to both the mars rover, and Beagle 2, The european attempt. it sounds better than, they just broke!!

take care

Looks like they're troubleshooting the problem...it seems to be the flash memory. They're trying to lock out the bad area of memory; hopefully, they've got some extra on board they can use. (You'd think they'd have put some extra in, with flash prices the way they are these days.) So, hopefully, Spirit will be roving again before long.

Opportunity touches down at around midnight EST tonight. Send some mojo its way, too.

w00t! Opportunity is on Mars and broadcasting! Direct to Earth even. Too bad it can't drive over to Spirit and replace it's flash memory DIMM's. ;-)

man, I can't tell you how happy I am that they're contacting the rover again, I had pretty much written it off; basically the longer it takes to re-establish contact, the greater chance it's gone for good. Let's hope they're able to get it back to very good health and get some really fantastic science out of it. Also, check out the Mars Express mission over in Europe, really great color pics and some great commentary on all this over at Metafilter

So glad the comments are up. Great job readers getting this book ranked so high! Woo Hoo!

looking forward to the segment on the screen savers!
Thankx .

I mean, I pretended to do shit in space. These people really do, and their work will have a far greater impact on history than mine.


Don't sell yourself short. Your work on Star Trek has undoubtedly inspired the young minds of our next generation space explorers, as much as, if not more than our real-life heros at NASA.

With appreciation,


Hey, nicely done segment, Wil! I just saw it about three minutes ago on The Screen Savers. I watch Screen Savers on a regular basis, so guess what a cool surprise it was to see you doing an interview for them with the space geeks at NASA!!! I hadn't seen your post stating you were going to do it (school's taking up a lot of my online time lately), so it was a neat surprise and I just had to log on to see if you'd written about it.

Good job and great to see you on TV again!