Future Tech

NASA tech reveals he crashed Spirit Mars rover two weeks before vital deadline

Tan KW
Publish date: Thu, 30 Nov 2023, 02:29 PM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

Astrofuturist and former NASA tech Chris Lewicki has revealed he crashed the Spirit Mars rover, and feared he may have destroyed it.

"A February evening in 2003 started out routine at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA," opens his post. Lewicki put on cleanroom garb, and passed through the airlock into the room where he worked as part of the team making the final two-week push to prepare Spirt before it was transported to Cape Canaveral in Florida for launch.

All that power we released went straight into the spacecraft

Lewicki had already worked for a dozen hours on this fateful day, but was nonetheless back for more - specifically tests to verify the integrity of the motors in the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) attached to the end of Spirit's robotic arm. The RAT's role was to grind rocks to reveal a little of their interior, so that Spirit could get a different view of Martian geology.

"Disassembling and inspecting motor components after each round of environmental testing is not practical," Lewicki explains in his post, adding that examining a motor's electrical performance can do the job just as well.

NASA does that sort of test using a device called a "break-out-box" that Lewicki explained is applied after the motor is disconnected from the spacecraft, before being hooked up to an external power supply and a strip chart recorder.

"A functioning motor will show a smooth, exponential decrease in electrical current during spin-up, while any problems show up as blips in the signal."

Spirit has 10,000 pin-to-pin connections and Lewicki's past work on the project had made him familiar with many.

But, despite Lewicki and his colleagues testing to ensure the test was set up correctly, a mistake was made.

When the test started, and electricity sent to the RAT’s motors, the results were horrifyingly unexpected.

"The strip chart did not look like anything we had seen before. It did not even look like a broken motor. It was decidedly - something else," Lewicki wrote.

"All that power we just released did not go into the RAT-Revolve motor. Due to a mistake I had made with the break-out-box, it went the other direction on the connector interface, sending a surge of electricity straight into the spacecraft, instead of the motor."

The rover stopped producing telemetry.

At this point Lewicki remembered that NASA's budget to build Spirit and its sibling, Opportunity, was around $1 billion, and that the launch of two rovers was a unique event in space exploration.

He was also very keenly aware that there were only two weeks before Spirit was due to leave JPL, so there was no time for major repairs.

Then 28-year-old Lewicki feared he'd cratered his career before it really took off.

Lewicki's post is wonderfully written, so we'll let you get the details of what happened next in his own words.

TL;DR: The part of Spirit that took the jolt was built to handle it, the rover rebooted, no lasting damage was done. The rover launched, landed, and the RAT-Revolve motor "worked just fine." Spirit operated for over six years and Lewicki eventually became flight director for it and Opportunity, winning NASA's Exceptional Achievement Medal to acknowledge his efforts.

He posted the story of shocking Spirit to celebrate failure, the colleagues who helped him endure it, and the growth it stimulated.

"Whenever I'm called upon to give my approval or endorsement for something significant, I'm instantly transported back to that moment - the room, the lighting, the chair I was in, the table, the pit in my stomach, the intense mix of fear, anxiety and regret for an oversight that nearly led to catastrophe," he wrote.

Lewicki's post invites readers to send their own stories of failure.

And of course, The Register does too - in our weekly On Call and Who, Me? columns, which also welcome your contributions. ®



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