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MIT Press to Publish Book about Scientists’ Experience Using the Mars Exploration Rovers

During the MER mission from 2002-2005, NASA Ames led several Human-Centered Computing projects to facilitate the MER scientists’ work. One project involved ethnographic observation of the science team—documenting the mission in videos and field notes while providing advice about facilities, organization, and processes. Clancey was present in February 2004 when the outcrop in Eagle Crater was being examined. Seeing the scientists gathered around tables in a dark room—in sharp contrast with practices of field geologists at Mars analog sites in the Arctic and Utah desert—raised fundamental questions about the scientific work: How does working with a mobile, programmable laboratory change the nature of field science? How does being a member of the science team with a shared robotic intermediary change what it means to be a scientist? How does the term “robotic geologist” relate to the scientists’ perspective on the technology? How does it disguise their contributions?

This book views MER as an exploration system for doing field science, examining how the design of the rover and how it is operated accounts for the quality of the scientists’ work. The MER mission enabled a new, blended scientific practice: exploring scientifically, engaging in field and laboratory work by interweaving human and robotic operations, using a textbook method (being systematic), yet stopping to investigate interesting features (being opportunistic), and probing the landscape in a kinesthetic, imagined experience.

Observations of “doing science with a rover” and prior studies of field science were complemented by oral histories of seven MER scientists and two engineers, historical mission comparisons, and analysis of documents. The book will include 24 color and 24 gray scale photographs and illustrations. Publication is anticipated in early 2012.

BACKGROUND: This work was funded in part by NASA’s Computing, Communications, and Information Technology Program, Intelligent Systems subprogram, Constellation Program, MER Mission Project, and a ROSES 2007 grant from NASA’s History Division

NASA PROGRAM FUNDING: This work was funded in part by NASA’s Computing, Communications, and Information Technology Program, Intelligent Systems subprogram, Constellation Program, MER Mission Project, and a ROSES 2007 grant from NASA’s History Division.

Contact: William J. Clancey

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