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Next Stop: Mars

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Fall 1999
Next Stop: Mars
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"The payoff for all this work is at the end," Paige says. "Until we actually land and begin to gather data, we won't know whether we've been successful."

While the science being conducted in space is obviously the most significant aspect of the mission, coordinating and keeping things together in Westwood is a monumental task in itself. To spend a few minutes with Karen McBride is to know what communications overload in the information age can be like.

Her multitasking skills on this project have been, and will continue to be, severely challenged. As operations manager of the Mars Polar Lander's UCLA science team, McBride is a scientist and administrator, as well as a public spokesperson and behind-the-scenes troubleshooter. On this day, she is barely able to utter a sentence without being interrupted by the ringing of her phone, the beeping of her pager or a knock on her office door. Getting through her long "to do" list is an exercise in battlefield triage.

Everyone who visits the UCLA facility comes away surprised at the small size of the science team it's a core of only 20 or so people, one-third the number on the Pathfinder mission.

"NASA wanted to do two missions [the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter] for the price of Pathfinder," McBride says with a smile. "So we work very, very hard."

On this summer day, McBride is brainstorming with UCLA's Communications Technology Services office in anticipation of the stress that will be placed on the telephone lines and data communications network. She has brought in Stephen Salyards, a geophysicist who was a colleague of Paige's during their doctoral studies at Cal Tech, for the formidable task of ensuring that all of the MVACS communication links run to their full potential. That includes the NASA-provided dedicated line to the payload, as well as the UCLA branches of the mission's Web site, where many of the images from Mars will first be displayed. Two years ago, the Web site for the Pathfinder mission was besieged by viewers anxious to download images of the Sojourner Rover. Salyards points out that the ranks of Internet users have roughly doubled since then, and he's bracing for 100 million to 200 million hits on this mission's first day. "We'll be putting up real-time data, and our challenge is to get this content out without swamping UCLA's or JPL's backbone networks on Dec. 3," he says.

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