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Dr. Philip Neches

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Landing on Mars Takes the Right Stuff

Posted: 08/12/2012 5:21 pm

Curiosity landed on Mars. I tell my golf-obsessed friends that what JPL accomplished is like teeing off at Saint Andrews and making a hole in one at Pebble Beach -- with the same ball. My JPL friends quarrel that the analogy is not exact. Perhaps, but it shows just how difficult the job was.

What is more, Curiosity is no mere golf ball, or even golf cart. Rather, it is the size and weight of a car. At that size and weight, air bags won't do. So JPL created the sky crane, which set the rover down on the Martian surface as gently as a mother laying a baby in a crib.

In the euphoria of success, it is easy to forget that the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, originally planned to land 26 months ago. So rewind the tape about three years to the winter and spring of 2009. JPL and NASA faced a decision that was as emotionally difficult as it was intellectually easy. Stick with the original schedule and accept perhaps too much risk of failure, or wait for the next window of opportunity to go to Mars, and use the time to do all the work needed to "retire" the risk.

For the managers, it meant taking the pain of delay, facing up to not meeting all the goals as scheduled, accepting a lower performance rating. Perhaps worst of all, they had to admit to themselves and each other that they had over-reached. It meant the humiliation of going back to NASA for more budget, and slipping developmental missions further out.

"Rocket science" is more than propulsion, navigation, and imagination. It is the discipline to analyze very complex things in order to identify every risk. Some risks can be designed out. Some can be reduced by a back-up system.

Some risks are just simply there, in the "critical path" to mission success, too expensive to design out, too fundamental to eliminate. For those things, every item must be studied, tested, and re-studied and re-tested to make them as close to perfect as humans can achieve.

The folks at JPL know this kind of rocket science. They invented much of it. They know what it takes -- not just in time and money, but in the attitude and dedication of the people doing the work. And they knew that if they stuck to their original schedule, they would come up short, by the standards they themselves developed and learned through many missions, both intoxicating successes and excruciating failures.

As a member of the committee of the Caltech Board of Trustees that oversees JPL, I watched the team go through the analysis. But in the end, the call was easy -- take the lumps and do the right thing. Every one of us on the committee supported management and commended them for setting their emotions aside and going with their clear-headed, logical analysis of the situation. We offered all the personal and institutional support we could muster.

The real measure of a team is not how it deals with success, but how it deals with adversity. JPL let out its collective breath, then re-planned and went back to work with a will. The delay added about 10 percent to the cost of the mission. It is harder to calculate how much risk was designed, tested, studied, and worried out.

But the result, one week ago, speaks for itself.

To do great things, it is not enough to dare and imagine. It takes the right stuff. Discipline. Judgment. Moral courage. And in that, Curiosity offers all of us a lesson that applies in every walk of life.

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) operates the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Caltech, JPL, or NASA.

 

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