While some were dressing as Santa Claus or in their favorite ugly Christmas sweater, a handful of journalists were donning their own space-age attire in order to watch technicians in Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “clean room” apply the finishing touches to NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

After a brief introduction by Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace in the gallery of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility (SAF), and Dave Gruel, Mars 2020 assembly, test and launch operations manager, we handed over our cameras, walked on sticky tape, wiped our faces, then donned surgical masks and white suits before taking an air bath and finally popping into the clean room to meet “the crew” of Mars 2020.

The SAF was built in 1961 and became the place where the first probes to the moon, Mars and Venus were assembled. In 2019, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, which was made possible by the pathfinders for the Apollo missions: the nine Ranger missions. According to JPL historian Erik Conway, “The whole idea of a clean room for spacecraft assembly comes out of the Ranger program.”

Two of the people I spoke with had rich family legacies at JPL. Said James S. Howard, the assembly and test launch operations quality assurance lead on Mars 2020, “I started here when I was 19 years old, but my aunt and uncle worked here about 40 years.” Through them, Howard said he considers himself a second-generation JPLer. He was able to visit Cape Canaveral at age 9 to see a night launch. During his 35 years at JPL, Howard was able to go again when he was 30, “remembering when I made that promise to myself as a child” that he would grow up to work there. Indeed, while others were celebrating the New Year, Howard was finding a new home in Florida, where he will be living for the next seven months, or until Mars 2020 leaves Earth.

Ray Baker, flight system manager for Mars 2020, explained that when the time comes the space agency’s latest rover will be loaded onto a C-17 military aircraft and then flown to Cape Canaveral in Florida. Unlike Howard, Baker won’t be stationed there, but will visit to help the team.

Like Howard, Mechanical Engineer Michelle Colizzi has a lot of NASA family behind her. “I come from a family of engineers,” Colizzi explained. “My grandfather and both his brothers, my aunt and her late husband, they worked here.” Her family also has a Mars connection.

“My grandfather worked on Pathfinder, the first Mars rover,” she said proudly.

Search for Life

After landing on July 4, 1997, Mars Pathfinder began collecting what would amount to 2.3 billion bits of information before its last data transmission on Sept. 27, 1997. That included more than 16,500 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover Sojourner, named for the Civil War-era civil rights icon Sojourner Truth. Pathfinder conducted more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and returned extensive data regarding winds and other weather factors.

“Findings from the investigations carried out by scientific instruments on both the lander and the rover suggest that Mars was at one time in its past warm and wet, with water existing in its liquid state and a thicker atmosphere.” NASA has reported.

The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, discovered further evidence that there was once running water on what appears to be a dry and barren planet.

Landing in 2012, the much larger rover Curiosity discovered Gale Crater contained a lake billions of years ago and that it had an environment that could have supported microbial life.

When it lands, Mars 2020 will explore Jezero Crater, located 3,760 miles from Curiosity. Jerezo, according to information provided by NASA,was once the site of an ancient delta and possesses a landscape shaped by water. Mars 2020’s mission “is to look for actual signs of past life, or biosignatures, capturing samples of rocks and soil that could be retrieved by future missions and returned to Earth for in-depth study,” according to NASA.

Since beginning operations, Curiosity has been utilizing 17 cameras, according to NASA. Mars 2020 has 23 cameras, most of them color, as well as two microphones to capture not only the first sounds of a Mars landing, but also Martian wind.

Mars 2020 will also be equipped with a small drone helicopter, the Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS), which is expected to fly five times during its 30-day test campaign. If all goes well, NASA will be able to build on the design of the MHS for future Mars missions.

The Cool Factor

This rover doesn’t rely on Mission Control to do “fine tune adjustments.” Rather, Colizzi explained, it has “terrain relative navigation that makes quick image comparisons” to make landing decisions. The MHS, which will provide overhead images with approximately ten times the resolution of orbital images, providing the best routes for Mars 2020, was not mounted and on display, but Howard has seen it tested, noting that it will be mounted underneath the rover and protected by a heat shield.

Colizzi will also be traveling cross-country with her husband and dog for seven months of work in Florida. Her family of engineers is intensely interested in all the developments, as well as a visit to Disney World.

The launch of Mars 2020 will be made on an Atlas rocket between July 17 and August 5th. Then there will be a long pause as the rover journeys to Mars, with landing planned for Feb. 18, 2021.

When Mars 2020 finally lands, Howard said, “I’ll be holding my breath like everyone else, hoping for the best.” Then we’ll know if a helicopter will fly on Mars that we have come a step closer to having someone suiting up as an astronaut to travel there and explore the Red Planet.

Howard noted that while “every day is an adventure” at JPL, with Mars 2020 “the cool factor for this project is through the roof.” n

For more information about Curiosity and Mars 2020, visit mars.nasa.gov/msl/home and mars.nasa.gov/mars2020.