Local Man Involved In First Mars Mission


Rim country resident Chuck Heron, who worked on the world's first mission to Mars, is watching the Spirit rover project with more than a passing interest.

"I've followed Voyagers and a lot of the other things we've done on Mars, and I think this is probably the most innovative and probably will yield far more data," Heron said. "I just read this morning where they have found a residue of salt where (the rover) is and there is some thinking that salt in this dry lake area they're in might be evidence of water."


Rim country resident Chuck Heron, who worked on the first Mars mission, displays a patch from the Apollo 8 mission that circled the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Heron, who retired from Motorola, worked on Mariner IV, the first mission to Mars, in 1965. The craft didn't land, but did send back the first close-up photo of the planet as it zoomed by.

"I worked for Motorola at their Military and Space Division in Scottsdale," Heron said. "Our job was the command system for that spacecraft."

The command system Heron helped build was a backup for the central computer and sequencer, which, he said, worked much like the timer on a washing machine.

"You set it to what you want, punch the button, and it does what you want without you being in attendance," he said. "It had all the mid-course maneuvers. It had the time at which the camera would come on and start photographing."

The sequencer worked flawlessly, so Heron's system ended up just going along for the ride.

"The command system was somewhat of a redundancy," he said. "There's a joke at NASA that when you build something in a spacecraft you build so many redundancies into it that when you turn it on it's impossible to turn it off."

Heron hopes that redundancies aboard the Spirit rover will help overcome the craft's latest problem: It stopped transmitting data Wednesday.

"I know what's happening right now," he said. "They're looking at all the redundancies to see if they can get it going again."

While NASA officials cannot explain what happened, Heron isn't too surprised.

"Mars has a very hostile environment," he said. "If they get a lot of dust storms up there that obscure the sun, that's going to have an impact on the battery systems onboard."

The photos sent back to Earth so far by the Spirit rover represent a quantum leap over those received from Mariner IV during its 30-minute fly-by of the red planet.

"It took 22 pictures, each was 200 lines with 200 dots per line, 40,000 pixels per picture, and those were digitized onto tape," Heron said. "Then it analyzed the tape on the camera system onboard, and sent back the signal at the rate of eight characters per second. It sent back 40,000 numbers, each representing 63 shades from white to black. It took a long time to get each picture back."

The historic first close-up of Mars was literally assembled by hand at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The lines of numbers were stapled side-by-side to a board, arbitrary colors were assigned, and each number was colored by hand with crayons.

Heron worked on the Ranger program, a series of nine missions designed to photograph the moon for the last 10 minutes before crash-landing on it.

"The television camera came on 10 minutes before the landing and was supposed to take pictures until it crashed," he said.

Heron worked on Ranger's radio subsystems.

"I helped design some of the pieces; designed and tested them," he said. "They went in the spacecraft and the spacecraft went up and -- boom -- crashed on the moon. So something I built is now litter on the moon."

Heron also worked on the Apollo program that landed men on the moon.

"It was right after NASA added 22 astronauts to their team of the original seven," he said. "One of those young astronauts came up to Motorola and I worked with him on the Apollo project. He and I went to dinner across from the Motorola plant one night, and I said to him, ‘We've got a lot of plans for going to the moon, Bill, are you one of the first to go?'

"‘Chuck,' he said, ‘there's 29 of us who are convinced we're going to be one of the first to go to the moon.'"

That was Bill Anders and he was on the first fly-by flight, Apollo 8, along with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell.

"They flew around the back of the moon and came home after broadcasting that famous Christmas Eve message from there," Heron said.

Besides passages from the Bible, the message included these words spoken by Anders: "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."

Heron said he thinks we belong in space, and he also thinks we will eventually find evidence of life.

"As far as intelligent life, I'd have to say somewhere out there, yeah, there is intelligent life," he said. "Whether we are ever going to be party to it, becoming friends with it, I don't think the technology now is anywhere close to that.

"But I really feel there is something out there. I've talked to so many people in the space industry, and I don't think any of them felt we hold an exclusiveness in the entire universe."

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