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A.J.S. RaylJanuary 15, 2004

Spirit Hits the -- Martian -- Road!

Spirit has hit the -- Martian -- road!

"Less than 24 hours ago, President Bush committed our nation to a sustained human and robotic program of exploration, but we at NASA move awfully fast, so in less than 14 hours -- we're are taking our first step," joked JPL Director Charles Elachi at a very early 3 a.m. press briefing. "Spirit is now ready to start its mission of exploration and discovery."

"Now we have 6 wheels in the dirt -- it doesn't get any better than this," reflected MER Project Manager Pete Theisinger. "But it will."

For some of the team members, this was the real landing. "A couple of weeks ago when we landed, Rob Manning declared: 'We have landed,'" recalled Joe Krajewski, the chief engineer for impact to egress. "For the last week and a half, he believed that, but I hadn't. We have actually been approximately 40 centimeters above Mars -- not quite there, but almost. Tonight we are there. That is a tremendous thing for all of us."

The robot geologist will be examining of crater's minerals, rocks, and atmosphere to determine whether it might have once held water and was capable of supporting life.

At 12:21 a.m. on Earth -- about 12:30 p.m. local time on the Red Planet -- the MER mission team sent a command to Spirit to begin its journey, as the theme song from the 1960s television western Rawhide played in the background. Less than a minute and a half and about 10 feet later, the robot geologist rolled to a stop, all six wheels in the dirt.

The carrier signal was returned around 1:54 a.m., and by 1:58 Flight Director Chris Lewicki gave the thumbs up sign, indicating to his crew that Spirit had moved off the lander. Then, the mission team waited for the images.

Spirit can travel as far as 100 meters in one day. The robot geologist will begin her study by investigating the soil and rocks right around her, checking out and using her robotic arm and the four instruments it houses: a microscopic imager that will view rocks and soil up close, the rock abrasion tool (RAT) that can grind into rocks, a Mössbauer spectrometer to find minerals that contain iron, and an alpha particle x-ray spectrometer (APXS) to sleuth out chemicals in the rocks and soil.

As the mission's lead scientist Steve Squyres announced yesterday, once the robot geologist has finished her examination of the immediate area, they will command her to hit the Martian highway and cruise off to a crater about 270 yards (250 meters) northeast of the lander. Then she will "head for the hills," a range that the team has dubbed the East Hills and which is a distant -- probably unreachable -- 3 kilometers away.

At 2 a.m., the first black and white thumbnail image showing in the background, the lander, which was renamed the Columbia Memorial Station last week. It was followed by another and another and another -- images from above, behind, and looking out to the direction in which Spirit is heading, even a mosaic of the area around lander -- each taken by either the hazard camera or the navigation camera.

"Now's the time where we sort of hand over the keys," pondered Flight Director Chris Lewicki. "We got to build this new sport car, but in the end we're just valets driving it around to the front and handing the keys over to the science team."

Most of the press briefing was devoted, amidst some tears and choked-back emotions, to thank yous and acknowledgments of the hundreds of people and various teams that helped put Spirit on Mars. At times -- if you closed your eyes -- which no small number of journalists found themselves doing, however unintentionally (it was 3 a.m., after all), the 'soundtrack' almost sounded like the audio feed from an Academy Awards show. It could have been -- only this movie is for real -- and everyone's the winner, walking off with a lot more than a golden statuette.

Team members reflected on the short, sometimes treacherous road that led them to this night -- and how far they had come, how far we as a generation had come.

"After my few hours of sleep, I wrote my to-do list for the day, and our to-do list for today was -- get some images from Mars, meet the Vice-President, and drive the rover onto Mars," marveled Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper. "As a young girl growing up on a farm in Ohio, I never envisioned that would be my to-do list for the day, but I am honored and privileged to be part of this team."

"Last night I looked up in the sky and looked at Mars and I'm still awed that we have a rover on that planet.," mused Elachi. "I was thinking that for centuries there have been millions of people who have looked up the same way I looked up wondering what's up there -- just think about that. We went not because we had to but because we wanted to go there."

And it's anything but over. As Lewicki noted: "Opportunity -- coming up in 9 days -- looking forward to doing it all again."

Read more: Spirit, mission status, Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars

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Salley Rayl
A.J.S. Rayl

Contributing Editor for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by A.J.S. Rayl

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