Over the holidays I had the great pleasure of re-establishing contact with many of the students that I worked with as part of The Planetary Society's Red Rover Goes to Mars project. This project was originally conceived as part of the Mars Surveyor 2001 mission; we were an officially selected educational partner with NASA on that mission, and planned to run an international contest to select students who would get a chance to come in and participate in real live mission operations. Then came the calamities of Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, and Surveyor 2001 was canceled. Improbably, Red Rover Goes to Mars survived that cancellation, in part because the program was being provided to NASA at no cost to them (at least on paper; obviously, to coordinate with us required time spent on the part of NASA employees, which isn't free but wasn't officially accounted for). When the Athena science payload from Surveyor was resurrected and placed on the Mars Exploration Rover mission, Red Rover Goes to Mars rode along.
But the contest had already been started to select the students for a 2001 program, and the Society didn't want to go back and say, "Whoops, sorry, remember that fantastic opportunity that you all applied for? It's gone. Talk to us in three years, when some of you will be too old to re-apply." So suddenly the Red Rover Goes to Mars program trifurcated, and we were on the hook to select not one but three groups of students.
The first, called the Student Scientists, already being selected, would come as planned in 2001, but instead of working on an active landed mission they were invited to Malin Space Science Systems to work with the Mars Orbiter Camera, working with Ken Edgett through the process of selecting targets to be imaged as possible future landing sites. A second group, the Student Navigators, came to JPL in 2002 and worked with Eddie Tunstel, Ashitey Trebi-Ollenu, and Bob Anderson through an exercise very similar to one that the Mars Exploration Rover team was performing, using a rover testbed called FIDO to simulate the planning of a rover traverse and science plan. At long last, in 2004, the Student Astronauts came to JPL to actually witness the active operations of a landed Mars mission. I worked with both the Navigators and the Astronauts, training, preparing, and then overseeing their JPL activities. It was great fun, and it's been delightful to find out where the last five, seven, or eight years have taken them. I've posted a page with lengthy updates from 14 of the ex-RRGTMers. I was especially tickled by the video updates provided by four of them, which I'll embed here (with apologies for the very low audio levels on Susini's):