The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of Americans to work from home over the past month, and likely into the foreseeable future.
Understandably, working remotely is easier for some employees than others, as coordinating with colleagues sprawled across the map can prove to be a difficult test of patience and technology. But what do you do when your most prominent team member is on a distant planet, millions of miles away?
That’s the challenge facing the team of NASA scientists and engineers who are responsible for the Curiosity rover that’s currently exploring the surface of Mars, roughly 140 million miles from earth.
The Curiosity team, which typically works from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, has been working remotely since California officials issued a “stay at home” order for all non-essential workers to help stop the spread of coronavirus in March, the space agency said in a blog post this week.
That means the Curiosity team has been forced to adapt to an extraordinary situation in which they have to manage the work of hundreds of people who maintain and control the rover from millions of miles away.
That includes writing computer code to program the rover’s actions, sequence by sequence, while conducting experiments with materials the Curiosity rover collects on its travels across the Red Planet.
“We’re usually all in one room, sharing screens, images and data. People are talking in small groups and to each other from across the room,” Alicia Allbaugh, who leads the Curiosity team, said in the post.
Now, those workers often have to hold several video conference calls at once, while also keeping in touch over messaging apps, in order to complete the same tasks they would normally pull off in their shared office space.
Sometimes, the team needs more than 20 people at a time working to program a sequence of actions before sending those instructions to the rover (a process that can take days) before it can complete a task like drilling into a rock for a sample of Martian sandstone to analyze.
NASA had to equip the workers with headsets, monitors and other computer equipment to make sure their work-from-home setups were adequate.
They also had to take home simple 3D glasses that allow them to view 3D images sent back from Mars by the rover on their home laptops (as opposed to special goggles they normally wear in the lab, but were not able to take home), NASA says.
Carrie Bridge, who heads up science operations for the Curiosity team, says she can still mostly stick to her normal routine, though she needs more virtual technology to do so now.
“I probably monitor about 15 chat channels at all times,” she said. “You’re juggling more than you normally would.”
But, that’s just the sort of adaptability that comes with the job, she adds.
“It’s classic, textbook NASA,” she said. “We’re presented with a problem and we figure out how to make things work. Mars isn’t standing still for us; we’re still exploring.”
Of course, even with scores of businesses being forced to adapt to more flexible working arrangements amid the coronavirus pandemic, not everyone is able to work remotely, whether that be because of their specific job requirements or, in some cases, lack of access to high-speed internet at home. A 2017 Gallup survey found that only about 43% of U.S. employees work remotely with some frequency, though some experts believe that number could rise permanently after so many people are regularly working from home amid for weeks at a time during the coronavirus pandemic.
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