- Insider spoke with Heather Justice, a host for NASA’s Mars Perseverance, who operates the rover remotely.
- The team has established a successful operation, but there are still some challenges drivers are facing.
- The justice indicated that maintaining a balance between work and personal life was difficult.
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About a year has passed since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and like most businesses, NASA is still grappling with the ongoing effects and challenges posed by the crisis. But unlike other companies, the US space agency does so while presiding over an enormously ambitious mission to Mars.
For engineers and scientists working on the Mars 2020 mission with their Perseverance rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, one of the key challenges is adapting to new work styles. This means that some drivers of mobile vehicles have adopted a hybrid working model, for example.
Insider spoke with Heather Justice, a NASA engineer on the Perseverance rover team, about the challenges of driving the machine. He also explained how he manages to execute commands and make new scientific discoveries during a pandemic while operating in the hour of Mars.
Justice has worked at NASA since 2011 and works on the Mars 2020 mission as a rover driver. She was the main driver of the Opportunity rover, which traveled more than 45 km and was operational on Mars from 2004 to 2018.
Facing the locks and social distancing restrictions, he explained the change in the way Perseverance teams operate, which was launched on July 30, 2020, and work together as a team. “It’s definitely a bit different from operating a new rover on Mars,” he said.
Under normal circumstances with previous rovers, the entire team would come to JPL and meet and work together on operations for the first two months. “It is a group bonding experience for all engineers and scientists working together,” Justice said.
She added: “As rover drivers, we also do our own little group where we look at the pictures and say, ‘Okay, this part of the terrain looks steep, or’ this part looks like there might be some risks in the way we want to drive. ‘Now, we really can’t do that. We can’t all be around one computer together right now, so that makes it a little more challenging. “
The Perseverance team has had to think of different ways of working, given the effects of the pandemic. The team was used to working in an organized facility filled with many large rooms, where all the scientists and engineers would congregate.
“Instead, we have just a few primary engineering roles that really need to collaborate in the lab that are there, but that are spread across new workstations that are far apart,” Justice said. “We’re like yelling at each other from our separate workstations, but it makes it a bit easier to collaborate without having to stress so much from all the virtual meetings.”
A particular challenge has arisen from the fact that teams cannot gather around a computer to discuss where the rover will drive. Instead, scientists and engineers have to put together all the sequences that will eventually control the rover every day via teleconferencing systems.
Justice said this is a popular form of communication between teams, which are all spread out at workstations due to social distancing restrictions. At the same time, the remote team members who are responsible for the navigation camera must coordinate with the rover drivers in the labs to get the images they need from the terrain.
But for Justice, there has definitely been a huge improvement and evolution in the off-road driving process. Some of that has been focused on the flight systems side, where they have tried to make Perseverance more capable.
She said: “An example of that would be autonomous navigation, where we have made a lot of improvements to the software so that the rover can drive further on its own. Hopefully in the long run that will make it easier for us. get longer drives that will allow us to get to the places that science really wants us to go. “
“There have also been improvements in the hardware, where the wheels are different from the Curiosity, so they are more robust to drive on sharp rocks,” he added.
Preparation was key for Justice before diving into the mission to Mars. “I was very good at making sure that any important tasks that had to be done during this time period were done in advance,” she said. “I also made sure to stock up on food because I don’t know what time I’ll be able to get to a grocery store to buy food if it’s in the middle of the night when I’m trying to eat.”
When asked how he achieved his work-life balance, Justice indicated that it was difficult. “We also work on weekends, 7 days a week, so there was definitely a period where I forgot what day of the week it was.”
“It’s not like you have your general eight-hour workday and you go home and stop thinking about it,” Justice said.
Then, of course, there is the added challenge of working in Mars time: “You work and sleep at odd hours and it changes every day – you don’t really have a consistent schedule,” he added.