By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
9:00 AM CDT, August 4, 2012
The Curiosity rover is making its final descent to the Martian surface, and all eyes in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's control room are glued to computer screens.
Except for Rob Manning's. The chief engineer for the rover mission is glancing at his watch, eager for his window of opportunity.
He sneaks out of the control room where the simulation is underway and heads down the street. There, in a cavernous building, an SUV-sized rover sits on a bed of sand.
Manning reaches for a radio connected to the rover and flips a switch.
Back in the control room, the signal cuts out. The flummoxed engineers sit in silence.
Manning congratulates himself on a job well done.
Regardless of whether the Curiosity rover lands safely on Mars on Sunday night, Manning can say, with a clear conscience, that he did his best to ruin it.
Manning heads a team of hundreds of engineers who design, test and operate the Mars Science Laboratory, as the rover mission is officially known. But for nine days, he becomes his own team's worst enemy.
The cheerful veteran of two previous rover missions devises horrible scenarios for the team to face. He throws solar flares at the rover and pokes holes in its fuel system.
You know Murphy's law, that anything that can go wrong will go wrong? "Well, I'm Murphy," Manning said.
This sabotage has a purpose: to make sure the rover team members can deal with any challenge that space throws at them.
Manning's high jinks "push the team and your capabilities to the limit," said deputy mission manager Brian Portock, one of Manning's victims. "That causes you some stress, and you try and prepare the best you can for that."
Botching a fake landing takes work. Months in advance, Manning pulled about a dozen engineers off their normal duties to help him plan his devious scenarios. To do the job right, he must find ways to outsmart himself. "Being a gremlin allows me to soul-search and look at all the things that I missed," he said.
With the help of his temporary rogues, he hatches another plan: to push the rover off course.
In this scenario, a micro-meteorite the size of a large grain of sand gets past the spacecraft's protective aluminum-and-Mylar blankets and punches a tiny hole in a fuel line. It doesn't put much of a dent in the fuel levels, but in a matter of days the tiny bit of thrust from the leaking hydrazine nudges the spacecraft off its course.
To make the error look believable, team members adjust the pressure in the fake rover's fuel tank and modify the Doppler signal that tells the craft how far it is from Earth. As a bonus, there's a Catch-22: To push the spacecraft back on course, the engineers need to give the spacecraft some gas. But using a broken fuel system could cause more problems.
"That's pretty evil," said victim Jeff Simmonds, who manages the payload of instruments aboard the rover.
Manning's deviousness knows few bounds. He turns some of his victims into spies so he can maximize his mayhem.
"I'm really good at playing dumb," said double agent Tracy Neilson, a fault protection engineer who sent an instant-message to her purported adversaries when it was time to stick a new kink in the system.
Manning also has the power to pull key problem-solvers off the fix-it team and force the remaining engineers to devise their own solutions, said Beth Fabinsky, one of Manning's co-gremlins. Rather than pretending these employees are out sick — Mars team members tend to show up for work even when ill — the story line has them winning the lottery or taking off to Tahiti.
With fake data emanating from the test rover's many instruments, sometimes things don't match up and the simulation goes awry in ways Manning never intended. In those cases, he and his minions issue a card telling engineers to ignore the problem and offering a facetious explanation. One card explains that the lab's radio antennas came under attack by "evil possessed clowns."
The cards ensure the engineers pay attention to the right mistakes. The goal is not to see the team fail, but to teach them how to deal with unforeseen challenges.
It's also a valuable team-building exercise, Manning said: "You need to figure out who the core people are who can solve your problem, listen to them carefully — and then trust them."
Still, for all his good intentions, the chief engineer seems to take an unholy glee in his stint on the dark side.
Shortly after the radio signal cuts out in the control room, the team calls a meeting to figure out what happened. As they gather around a conference table, their eyes turn to Manning, knowing he's to blame.
He pulls out a pair of red sequined devil horns, sticks them onto his head and grins.
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