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To Mars and Back

What were you doing when you were 22 years old? Take a minute to think about it. Maybe you were starting your first job? You may have just started or finished a college degree? More likely than not, you were not doing what Nicole Spanovich was doing . . . operating a rover on Mars.

Most of us do not get the unique opportunity to participate in a NASA mission during our lifetime, much less when we are under 30 years old. But, for Spanovich and more than 40 other undergraduate and graduate students, the winter and spring of 2004 marked a time of abundant opportunity and experience. These lucky students suddenly found themselves right in the middle of the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Zoe Learner studies 3D images of Mars.
Zoe Learner studies 3D images of Mars.
Image Credit: Zoe Learner
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Launching a career in Mars science

For Cornell graduate student Zoe Learner, coming to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to work on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission was a dream come true, one that came to fruition a lot sooner than she expected. "I've wanted to work on a Mars mission since high school, when I learned about the Pathfinder mission. Nine years later, here I am. It's crazy. I don't know a lot of people who are doing exactly what they wanted to do their junior year in high school."

For Learner, a strong grad-school application, and being at the right place at the right time pushed her dream into reality. After applying to Cornell's graduate school program, she got a call from Mars Exploration Rover Principle Investigator Dr. Steven Squyres, who asked if she would be interested in working on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

"I took a minute to compose myself and then quickly said I was interested. It was exciting and overwhelming. I remember getting off the phone, running into the kitchen in a daze, and telling my mom."


Nicole Spanovich poses with a model of Mars.
Nicole Spanovich poses with a model of Mars.
Image Credit: University of Arizona
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University of Arizona undergraduate Nicole Spanovich also celebrated with her family when she found out she would be working on the Mars Exploration Rover mission. "I was the first one in my family to go to college, so the fact that I was actually going to be working on a mission really made my family extra proud."

Learner cites being proactive as the reason why she ended up in mission control for the landing and operation of Spirit and Opportunity. Spanovich approached her future advisor, and Mars Exploration Rover participating scientist, Peter Smith after hearing his presentation on the Mars Exploration Rover mission. "He said he had money for student researchers. I asked for a job, and six months later I'm at JPL waiting for landing!"

But landing was the "easy part," and soon, the hard work began. From January through March, Zoe, Nicole, and every other person working mission operations devoted their entire lives to seeing that two rovers on Mars stayed safe and successfully completed their mission objectives.


In her free time, Learner enjoys sharing her martian knowledge.  Here she speaks with local high school studnets interested in Mars.
In her free time, Learner enjoys sharing her martian knowledge. Here she speaks with local high school students interested in Mars.
Image Credit: Zoe Learner
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On-the-job Rover Training

Like most of the students who work on the Mars Exploration Rover mission, Learner served in various mission-critical functions. One of her favorite roles was as documentarian. In this role, Learner was responsible for the daily documentation of the science activities proposed by each theme group and for understanding why each activity was important and how each ranked in order of importance. She then made sure the commands were uploaded correctly and reported back to the scientists if activities were deleted from the plan and why. "This was a very exciting position because I was able to give input and be a part of the upload decision-making process," said Learner.

Learner was intimidated by the enormous responsibility of the work at first, but because the senior scientists encouraged her development and accepted her ideas, she quickly began to feel like she was a fully integrated team member. "We students get to JPL, and suddenly we're actually working with people we've seen on TV, and whose textbooks we've read in school. You feel like you need to fall into the role of 'student' to 'professor.' But that's not the environment during a mission. It's awesome – I am able to discuss science with these experts, and actually say ‘no I disagree with you. . .' and they respond as if I were their peer."


Spanovich spends many hours a day at this workstation but wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
Spanovich spends many hours a day at this workstation but wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL
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Like Learner, Spanovich jumped headfirst into mission operations and found herself performing as a full team member before she finished unpacking. "I never imagined I'd be this involved in a mission. I thought I'd be here for three months in a background function, but I've gotten to be involved in every process from commanding the rovers, to watching images come down, to discussing the scientific relevance of those images."

Spanovich essentially filled in for her advisor, Smith, when another mission he was working on – Phoenix – was selected by NASA to go forward. Spanovich became a full participant on the atmospheric sciences theme group and joined the microscopic imager team. "The other team members really took me under their wing," she explained.

As Spanovich got more comfortable with operations, she had the opportunity to take on more of a leadership role. During her shift as the payload downlink lead for the microscopic imager instrument, Spanovich tracked the data as it came down, checked and processed images for focus and shadow corrections, calibrated the instrument, made three-dimensional images and reported on instrument health to the rest of the science team.

"I went from being a student in the background to answering complicated questions. Some of the time I don't think people even realized I was a student." Spanovich commented that one of the best parts about working on this mission as students is how well they are all accepted. "That's one of the things that surprised me. We are treated as colleagues. The senior scientists – even Steve Squyres – will ask me questions. I'll give input, and they'll accept it. It's a great feeling."


Cornell graduate student Jason Soderblom works with seasoned scientists to analyze martian data.
Cornell graduate student Jason Soderblom works with seasoned scientists to analyze martian data.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL
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A Strong Partnership

As noted, Spanovich, Learner, and their peers were not idle bystanders or quiet observers of the process. Each of the students involved in the mission had, and have, very specific mission-critical roles. In fact, according to Mars Exploration Rover science manager John Callas, the mission would not have been as successful without the work of the students. "These talented students were an incredibly effective augmentation to our operations," he explains. "Their enthusiasm and willingness to work hard made them an indispensable part of our day-to-day staffing plan."

Other science team members, like University of Tennessee's Hap McSween, smile and agree that the younger members of the Mars Exploration Rover science team were a welcome addition. "The more seasoned people and the young people complement each other so nicely," McSween said. "The students bring unlimited energy, while we have a sense of perspective about what has already been learned."


Jason Soderblom celebrates with dad Larry Soderblom after the Mars Exploration Rover  Spirit successfully lands on Mars.
Jason Soderblom celebrates with dad Larry Soderblom after the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit successfully lands on Mars.
Image Credit: Jason Soderblom
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Coming Back to Earth

As winter moves into the Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum landing sites on Mars, the rovers are beginning to slow and scientists and engineers must adjust their expectations to accommodate the more limited capabilities of the cold and tired rovers.

Spirit and Opportunity will eventually say good-bye, and forever stay on Mars, but for the graduate students, the martian winter means a quick trip back to Earth . . . and the classroom. But how are they different now? Has this experience changed them? Will they be able to relate to their student peers when they've come from such an extraordinary experience?

Cornell University graduate student Jason Soderblom knows how it feels to come back to reality after being enveloped in the excitement and discovery of a martian mission. He was only 18 when he had the opportunity to participate in the Pathfinder mission. "That was a blast," he exclaims. "That was my first real exposure to space exploration, and I was hooked."

Soderblom has had an inside look at the world of space exploration and mission work because his dad – Dr. Larry Soderblom - has been in the field for a long time and was one of the founding science members on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

The younger Soderblom started working on the Mars Exploration Rover mission a year ago under the advisement of participating scientist Dr. Jim Bell. He has made many contributions to the mission, and sees the end as a new beginning. "This will hopefully not be the peak of my career," he comments. "There are so many upcoming opportunities. It's a great time to be involved in space exploration." Jason Soderblom is currently co-authoring a paper with his father that will highlight some of the panoramic camera data he's worked on.


A group of graduate students from Cornell University, including Soderblom and Learner, wait for confirmation of Opportunity's successfull landing on Mars.
A group of graduate students from Cornell University, including Soderblom and Learner, wait for confirmation of Opportunity's successfull landing on Mars.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL
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Besides the obvious benefit of gaining knowledge, being a part of the Mars Exploration Rover mission gave the participating graduate and undergraduate students networking opportunities that will benefit them for the rest of their careers. "This experience has developed more long-term professional friendships and associations than I ever could have gotten at the university," explains Soderblom. "The level of camaraderie and friendship between the students is analogous to freshman year of college in a new dorm. These are friends and colleagues I'll have for the rest of my career."

But what about all those friends and colleagues that Learner, Spanovich, and Soderblom left behind at school? Will they be jealous or supportive? Spanovich will be going back to the University of Arizona in the fall, and says that relating to her old friends might be a little difficult. "It will be hard for them to understand the intensity of the mission."


The hardest part will be taking a beginning geology course requirement. "I've watched as the first pictures of the Meridiani outcrop data came down," she continues. "I've listened to experts like Dr. John Grotzinger present on martian crosbedding. Now I'm going to be studying John's book with freshmen and learning about basics like basalt."

Whatever their future will bring, the students who contributed to the Mars Exploration Rover Mission will pass on to their next stage of life knowing that they witnessed, and were part of, one of the greatest martian missions in history.

Spanovich and the other students express that, at least in the beginning, moving from their current environment, where they work one-on-one with expert scientists as peers, back into a standard classroom environment is going to be difficult. "Coming back to reality is going to be the hardest part," sighs Spanovich with a smile. "Going to classes, reading text and taking tests just cannot compare to the exhilaration of actually commanding rovers on Mars."

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