Emily LakdawallaJul 17, 2012

A plea to Mars Science Laboratory team members: write your experiences down

Fewer than three weeks remain until, one way or another, the Curiosity rover will be sitting on the surface of Mars. (It'll either have six wheels on the ground or be a smoldering crater, but regardless of what happens, it'll be on Mars.) A mission this huge has a huge team behind it, thousands of people who built it, programmed it, are flying it, will operate it, and hope to get publications or even Ph.D. theses out of it. That's thousands of people, having thousands of unique experiences that the other seven billion people in the world could never possibly share -- unless the people inside the mission communicate what's going on to the people outside the mission.

We'll hear some of those stories over the next weeks, but only a very, very few of them, vetted through the public information offices of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA. For a mission as high-profile as this one, NASA exerts very tight control over who speaks, and how, especially in the crucial period around landing when the eyes of the world are on them. I can't blame them for this caution -- I've seen how a careless choice of words can spiral into a scandal in the press -- but at the same time, I'm sad that the individual voices of the lower-level participants in this great enterprise tend to get stifled.

One participant in the Mars Exploration Rover mission produced a very clever solution to this problem. While living on Mars time -- a schedule that I can tell you from personal experience is incredibly disruptive to one's relations with people living on Earth time -- Scott Maxwell kept a daily (at least at first) journal about his experiences as a rover driver. At the time, the journal was only intended for him to help keep in touch with a wife he rarely saw because of the crazy Mars time schedule.

Exactly five years later, though, he started posting blog entries composed from the notes he kept in that journal, helping us rover huggers relive the excitement of the first thousand-plus Martian days of the rover missions. With five years of time elapsed since landing, NASA and JPL were no longer freaked out about people writing about those tense early days, and Scott was able to post about all the challenges and scary moments that he and his coworkers experienced. At some point, he stopped keeping the journal, but for more than three years it was an exciting read.

So this is my plea to Curiosity team members who want to talk about what it's like to live on a Mars mission, but are prevented from doing so by (mostly understandable) NASA hyper-caution: do what Scott did. Keep a journal. Write a blog, but don't share it publicly; keep it to yourself, or maybe just share it with your spouse and kids. I can promise you that even if you never share it publicly, you'll be very glad that you wrote your experiences down. Sleep deprivation ruins memory; living on Mars time, you'll need help remembering what happened. (Especially if you do have a family so must live on an awful hybrid of Earth and Mars time.) Then, a few years down the road, when Curiosity has achieved all her mission success goals and you're coasting into the second or fourth mission extension, dust off that journal and consider sharing it with the rest of the world. Please!

I did ask Scott whether he was happy that he did it. He answered:

Very. It's so great to be able to go back to the early sols in particular and refresh my memory about what an amazing environment MER was. An engineer's/space geek's/science cheerleader's paradise, truly. There's so much I just would have forgotten -- indeed, no doubt there's so much I *have* forgotten. But thanks to writing the blog, at least there's a lot I can remember about absolutely the best time of my professional life.

I asked why he did it. He said:

Blame it on the stars in my eyes. I had some sense of what an adventure it was, and how great it was that we were going to take everyone in the world with us. I wanted to show what it was like to be a tiny little part of that adventure, from the inside. I'm always more fascinated by those stories myself anyway -- not the broad sweep of history, but what it was like to be a peasant in 1412; not Jason, but an Argonaut.

And I asked whether he recommended that young participants in the Mars Science Laboratory mission give it a try. He said:

Yes, for sure. Even if they never publish it but only have it as a private diary -- or maybe shared with family and friends -- it will have value to them. And of course, if they *do* publish it, it'll have value to that many others.

So: Write write write! You'll be glad you did. And in a few years, maybe, those of us not fortunate enough to be Martian explorers ourselves will have a chance to enjoy a vicarious experience of that adventure.

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