Today, I have a special treat for space enthusiasts, science geeks, and Sci-Fi writers looking for some base background material. I have the privilege to introduce to you and interview a key member of the Mars Atmosphere Volatility EvolutioN (MAVEN) project, Pat Langley. I appreciate Pat taking time out of his crazy busy schedule to sit down and answer a few questions about MAVEN. I have given an overview of the project in previous posts so; in the interest of time let’s get started.
Dennis – So, Pat, who do you work for and what is your relationship to the MAVEN project?
Pat – I work for Lockheed Martin, who built the spacecraft, did the integration, testing, and will be conducting mission operations. I am the Requirements and Verification Lead, which makes me responsible for ensuring that the spacecraft requirements are properly defined and verified, prior to launch.
Dennis – What do you mean by integration?
Pat – Several of the instruments on the spacecraft were created by other organizations and universities and those instruments need to communicate with the spacecraft. MAVEN, in turn, transmits the instruments data to earth. Integration is the process of assembling all of the pieces and making sure that they work together.
Dennis – What do you mean by requirements?
Pat – It’s like a child who asks for chocolate cake for their birthday, only not just chocolate cake. It needs to have raspberry filling and not chocolate frosting, but chocolate mousse frosting and number candles, not stick candles. These are requirements.
Dennis – What are some of the requirements for a spacecraft?
Pat – For example: a spacecraft may need to produce 1000 watts of power. It has to survive the launch environment and it may have to survive the mission environment for five years. It has to have enough propellant to maintain the spacecraft in orbit once it reaches its mission environment, i.e. Mars.
Dennis – Sounds complicated?
Pat – Not complicated, just methodical. You work from a written plan.
Dennis – You mentioned the spacecraft has to survive for a period of time? How long is MAVEN scheduled to survive?
Pat –. The cruise to Mars should take 10 months. The mission, from there, is scheduled to last one year.
Dennis – What happens to it after one year?
Pat – If there is propellant leftover, and there should be, MAVEN will enter either an extended mission and continue to collect science data. Or, serve as a data relay for the current ground assets already on the Martian surface,”Opportunity” and “Curiosity” (the recent rover landing)
Dennis – Is this your first space vehicle-type project?
Pat – No, I have worked a number of other NASA and DOD programs.
Dennis – Any that we might have heard of?
Pat –Magellan, the Venus orbiter, and Orion, NASA’s next deep space human exploration spacecraft.
Dennis – Have you always been interested in space travel?
Pat – No. I went to school to be a Marine Biologist, graduated as an Ocean Engineer, and ended up in the aerospace industry.
Dennis – So, you went from wanting to explore inner space to exploring outer space.
Pat – Yes.
Dennis – I’m assuming that MAVEN wasn’t built-in a weekend. How long has the project been active and have you been working on this project from the beginning?
Pat – I believe that the PI (Principle Investigator) has been working on this for about 10 years. I have been working on it for four years.
Dennis – This must take a very large project team?
Pat – The numbers varied depending on what is going on at that particular point in the program. When I came on board, there were only about 50 people on the spacecraft team. At the peak, we were over 200, and that is just the spacecraft. That does not count the NASA and science instrument teams.
Dennis – That’s a big team. What does a project like this cost?
Pat – NASA says the entire project, spacecraft, launch vehicle, all the science, costs $671 million.
Dennis – Wow!
Pat – Here’s another way to look at it. If you take the $671 million total cost and divided by the U.S. population of 300 million people, it comes to $2 per person, and that’s over the seven years of the project. That’s less than the cost of one cup of Starbucks over seven years.
Dennis – Hmm. With the recent hoopla over the federal budget, that kind of changes the way those big numbers look. Interesting. Okay for the cost of a half of a Starbucks, what benefits would the common taxpayer see from this type of project?
Pat – Exploration stems from human curiosity. MAVEN will give us a better understanding of our neighboring planet and what happened to its atmosphere and the water. Many of the computer models for the MAVEN mission can be used here on our own planet. This all adds into helping answer the age-old question, “Is there, or was there, life beyond our Earth.” Additionally, technologies developed for the space program that public gets benefit from are too numerous to name here. One of the biggest areas is in miniaturization of technology. When ounces matter, making it smaller and lighter is huge. The Space Foundation website has a long list of benefits from space program.
Dennis – The press releases coming out of NASA state that MAVEN data will be used to help determine how the Martian atmosphere has deteriorated over the eons. That sounds a bit like the global warming effect we’ve been hearing about for years. Is that a fair connection for the average person to make?
Pat – No. I would say that the two have nothing in common.
Dennis – Really, please explain.
Pat – We don’t know what caused the atmosphere to deteriorate on Mars. It might have been the loss of its magnetic fields, solar winds, or a multitude of other potential reasons. That’s what we hope the data will help us determine.
Dennis – I read that if MAVEN had been delivered late to the KSC, that the project would have been pushed back 26 months to allow the planets to realign. If that’s the case, and the launch window opens on 11/18, just how narrow is the actual launch window?
Pat – The primary launch window is 20 days, November 18th to December 7th. We could potentially extend the window a week or two, but that would reduce the length of the primary mission, which is really not desirable. We had a margin in our delivery and test schedule, so that if we encountered problems along the way, we would not negatively impact in the launch date. I’m happy to say, we’re still on schedule.
Dennis – Will you be directly involved in the launch?
Pat – Yes and no. The spacecraft needs to be powered up several days before launch, and it needs to be monitored while it is powered up. I will be monitoring health and status, the night before and up until four hours before launch. Then I get relieved and can go back to my room to get some sleep…….NOT….. I will really head to one of the viewing areas and watch the launch.
Dennis – I’m looking forward to seeing the launch as well. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about MAVEN. Good Luck to you and the team.
To say that I am proud of my brother Pat, would be gross understatement. When someone you have looked up to your whole life is involved in an accomplishment like this project, it validates that you were right to respect that person for the past fifty-four years.
Look forward to more MAVEN posts and tweets in the coming days. T minus 13 days!