28 July 2012

Blogging MSL

Posted by Ryan Anderson

The countdown to MSL's landing, posted in the hallway at JPL. Image courtesy of @marsroverdriver

You guys. MSL lands in 8 days! My brain is having trouble grasping how soon that is. Later this week I pack up and drive to Pasadena, where I’ll be sharing an apartment with my supervisor and working on the mission. I expect it to be exciting and exhausting and fascinating and of course I want to share it all here on the blog.

Except I can’t.

This week during the regularly scheduled MSL science operations telecon, we got some training and guidelines for interacting with the media and sharing information about the mission online. The bottom line is, I can’t share any details of upcoming rover activities, science discussions, spacecraft health, etc. here on the blog. I can write about things that have been shown in official NASA press releases, and I can share mundane aspects of what I did on any given day (“I’m going to the APAM Meeting!” or “Getting up at 3am tomorrow for downlink.”), but I won’t be able to tell you what the science team is hoping to accomplish by driving to point X or analyzing target Y. Heck, I can’t even share the agenda for the science discussion meetings. I can tell you that I attended the meeting but that’s about it.

It’s very restrictive, but it makes perfect sense. Here’s the thing: I’m a member of the science team, not a member of the press corps. As a member of the science team, I get to be a part of this amazing mission, and I get to hear a lot of conversations, discussions, and meetings that are not meant for prime time. Part of doing good science is asking dumb questions and getting things wrong, and there is concern that if people are worried that what they say behind closed doors might end up as a blog headline somewhere, that they won’t feel comfortable doing what they need to do to make the mission a success. Obviously, the last thing I want is limit the success of the mission by making people feel uncomfortable, so I am going to be limiting my blogging.

That said, I DO plan to blog about the mission. There are plenty of things that I still can write about: What does it feel like to watch the landing with the rest of the science team? Why are the phyllosilicates at Gale one of the primary science targets? How does the DAN instrument detect hydrogen? How much does it suck to live on Mars time? And of course, once discoveries are released through the proper NASA channels, I’m allowed to talk about them, and I intend to!

Images from the mission are a bit of a gray area: if NASA makes an image public, then I am allowed to share my take on it. But if the same image was the subject of science discussion among the team earlier that day, I’m not allowed to share the hypotheses that were tossed around in that meeting. I think it’s going to be very difficult to draw the line between “my original thoughts about an image” and “my thoughts that have been influenced by new ideas from science team meetings”. So in general, I will probably have to refrain from doing much more than admiring the scenery in images posted to the blog, unless they are released in an actual press conference along with the team’s interpretations.

All of this is to say that yes, I plan to blog the mission. But I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that I can’t write about everything here. As much as you and I both want me to expound at length every day about what kind of rocks we are seeing, and what that thing in the distance might be, and what the latest result from ChemCam might mean, it’s not going to happen. My hope is that I can share the experience of being involved in such a huge mission on this blog, and provide good science explanations for discoveries from the mission that are released through the normal NASA channels, while steering clear of privileged information about the mission that is not meant to be shared with the whole internet. It’s a fine line to walk at times, but I will do my best to share what I can. I also will be keeping notes about the mission that will not be posted here on the blog. But who knows, maybe once enough time has passed I will be able to share them. I hear that makes for some very interesting reading.

Stay tuned, things are about to get very very interesting!