In 1994, I was working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a secretary when a co-worker came to me one day to tell me about this new thing called the "Internet". He showed me a piece of software he called a "browser" and the amazing things you could view with it – including a group of pages from the project on which I was working, Mars Pathfinder.
I was fascinated, and spent the next couple of days dreaming of the things I could do. After obsessing over the sites I found, I went to my boss, the project manager, and asked if I could take over the group of 10 or so pages that one of the engineers had posted to the JPL server. While not exactly encouraging, he wasn't opposed, and let me do it with the understanding that it shouldn't interfere with my regular duties.
Over the next year and a half, I spent every spare moment teaching myself how to write HTML, how to manage a server, how to make pages that were visually appealing and had compelling content, and how to build it all into a coherent site. (Being a drama major, this was all new territory to me.) I also found time to write a newsletter about the project, too.
Needless to say, my secretarial duties were gradually phased out, with the approval of the boss and I took on the management of the site full-time.
I'd now managed to write, code and post about 1,000 pages of information, with photos, live video and audio streaming, time-lapse photography, and updates at least every day. (Keep in mind this was 1996…) The site was consistently getting about 2k-3k visitors a week.
(I won't get into the battles I had with the NASA bureaucracy about posting such volumes of information without going through the usual channels – suffice it to say that I took it all the way to the Director of the lab, and he backed me 100%.)
Eventually, I reached the limit of my technological and time-management capability and called in a software engineer to help me with taking care of the logistics of the site. Kirk and I did some very preliminary analysis of the traffic the site had been receiving, and with a big event coming up (the actual launch of the probe to Mars) we planned carefully for the number of visitors we should expect and what we would need to make sure the site was able to handle it.
1,000,000 visitors in one one day was just a *little* more than we expected! Needless to say, we went back to the drawing board and broadened our approach to site traffic and availability. We worked with other NASA centers and other countries' space agencies, and mirrored the site to 40 off-site organizations. Kirk wrote a script to automate the delivery of new files to the mirror sites. We called in robust servers from technology companies in Silicon Valley. We streamlined the site as much as possible, while still maintaining a rigorous update schedule.
By the time the landing on Mars approached, I had posted 10,000 pages of material, and we were as ready as we could be.
And on July 4, 1997 the Mars Pathfinder lander bounced down on the surface of Mars, and the little Sojourner rover rolled off its platform – the first mission to reach the Red Planet successfully in over 20 years.
The site was a smashing success, too, with 750 million visitors in 90 days (sometimes reaching 300 hits per second.)
I'm very proud to have built one of the first 1,000 web sites in the world, and to have been able to provide so many people with access to the mission I loved.