On July 30, 2020, an Atlas rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atop this rocket was the Perseverance rover. Almost 7 months later, the Perseverance will land on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021. However, the efforts for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission began eight years ago with a task to do something that had never been done before.
Built for Mars is a documentary that take viewers through the process of creating and building the Perseverance rover and getting it ready for this important mission. It takes you from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) at Cal Tech in Pasadena, California all the way to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Premiering Thursday, February18th at 8pm ET/ 7pm CT on the National Geographic Channel, this special broadcasts on the same day that the Perseverance rover lands on Mars.
Perseverance is scheduled to land on the Jezero Crater. Containing the geological features of an ancient river delta, it is believed that this crater was a lake of water 3 billion years ago. Therefore, it is a good place to begin to look for evidence that life may have existed on Mars at one time. Perseverance and Mars 2020 is just part of a three step mission. It will drill rock samples from the surface of the planet and cache them. Then the second part of the mission will gather these samples and launch them into orbit around Mars. The final part of the mission will then return these samples to Earth for further study. This is the first time material from Mars will be brought back to our planet.
Rovers are not something that can be mass produced in a factory. Instead Perseverance was hand made by flight technicians following the plans and direction of engineers and scientists. In fact, the flight technicians are the only ones allowed to touch flight hardware. The scientists and engineers are just observers during the building process. The tolerances for the rover are minuscule and everything must be done correctly or it could cause expensive fixes or even lead to a catastrophic failure on Mars. One technician describes how one day all he did was install six screws and he went home exhausted due to the precision required.
The documentary discusses several of the challenges for the Mars 2020 mission. Radio communications between Earth and Mars take 11 minutes, so the spacecraft is on its own as it decelerates from 12,000 mph to a gentle touchdown on the surface. Also, since they don’t want the Mars samples contaminated by anything from Earth, the sample collection equipment is built in ultra clean rooms where the technicians are not allowed to wear makeup, hair conditioner, perfume, etc. In fact, some techs even had to quit smoking. Since the titanium sample tubes are the cleanest things ever made, this caused some problems during testing since there was nothing to prevent friction between the tubes and the drill resulting in the tubes getting stuck. This only became apparent during final testing in the 25 Foot Space Simulator used to test the craft for the harsh conditions of space. Built for Mars shows how these engineers and technicians were able to overcome these challenges and still launch on time despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interview With Katie Stack Morgan
I had the opportunity to interview Katie Stack Morgan, the Deputy Project Scientist on the Mars 2020 project. She helps lead the 450 scientists that are on the Perseverance rover team. This project began in January of 2013. Katie began working with JPL on the Curiosity rover missions when she was a grad student. She continued to work on the Curiosity mission as a research scientist and then was pulled over to Mars 2020 in 2017. Since Perseverance will be collecting and caching samples to later be returned to Earth, this required a lot of new engineering and scientific advancements over previous rovers. Katie explained one of the challenges in designing Perseverance was that it required sensitive scientific instruments that would normally be protected and used in a controlled environment. Now they had to take those same instruments, make them small enough to fit on a rover and survive being blasted into space and working in the extreme conditions on the surface of Mars.
Katie also explained how the COVID-19 pandemic affected Mars 2020. While the rover was basically completed by that time, the preparation for operations took place with the team working remotely. Only a few who had to be on site to prepare the rover for to be put on top of the rocket worked on site in person. Katie mentioned that most of the science team does not live near JPL, so they are used to teleconferencing. However, they did miss the opportunity to come together to celebrate a successful launch and other team building moments. She also feels like the science team and engineers missed out on the hallway conversations that take place when people work together. Often problems can be quickly resolved by walking into someone’s office for a brief talk.
As we concluded our interview, Katie expressed her desire for viewers of the documentary to understand what a paradigm shift the Mars 2020 mission represents with the task to return samples from Mars to Earth where they can be better studied. Perseverance is really doing something important to help us understand questions such as is there life beyond Earth. This mission will also help show how planets evolve over time. It is believed that Mars and Earth were very similar at one time but took different pathways until we have “Earth teeming with life while Mars is a cold, dry barren place.” Katie is very proud of the Mars 2020 program. In March of 2020, there was a question if the rover was going to make it to launch in July. But they did and this was a bright spot for her and for others during this time when there was so much negativity taking place.
Be Sure to See Built for Mars
I am grateful for the time that Katie Stack took to speak with me. Our interview helped me appreciate this documentary even more. Built for Mars is an excellent documentary that really covers the human element that goes into building a machine that will operate in a hostile environment on another planet. Viewers will come to understand the challenges the team encountered as they prepared for things never done before and how they overcame those challenges. I enjoyed seeing the actual technicians who built Perseverance by hand explain their tasks and see it first hand. It was interesting to follow the scientists who travelled around the world for remote testing and to see what different rock formations that might contain evidence of life would look like through the rover’s cameras. By the end of the two hour presentation, I was in awe at what a technological marvel has been created for the Mars 2020 mission. I encourage everyone to watch Built for Mars on the National Geographic channel when it premiers on February 18th at 8pm ET/ 7pm CT.