On 7 August 2013, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made an astonishing achievenment, landing the Mars rover Curiosity safely onto the planet.
That Monday morning (6am UK time) I was glued to NASA TV, and I then wrote a newsletter , abandoning my planned topic, and extolling their astonishing achievement. Here it is.
A personal assessment of what went into creating the astonishing achievement of NASA’s and JPL’s Curiosity rover landing, yesterday.
This newsletter got hijacked by the extraordinary theatre of the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars Exploration Rover, Curiosity. At 10:31 pm on 5 August, Pacific Daylight Time, Curiosity landed and, shortly afterwards, sent back its first images from Mars, via NASA’a orbiting Mars Reconnaisance and Oddysey satellites already in position above Mars.
At the time I normally write these newsletters (6am on a Monday morning) I was glued to NASA TV. There is no greater inspiration for the next generation of engineers, scientists and yes, project managers, than this astonishing achienvement. Learn more from the JPL Mars Science Laboratory website.
My wife, Felicity, said to me: “anyone would think this is bigger than the Olympics for you.” It is – in every way. I am still reflecting on why that is and what the elements of success are. Here are my interim conclusions.
Not just the vision to go to another planet with a bigger, more complex, more highly functional research tool than ever before; but to do so using a range of exciting, and novel engineering solutions. NASA’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” bears re-watching and shows just what an inspirational engineering solution was used.
Commitment to Science, Engineering and Maths
Okay, I know that this is a hobby horse of mine but this worked only because NASA/JPL are shining beacons of a total commitment to scientific method, engineering excellence and the primacy of mathematical calculations in understanding our world (and others) and finding solutions that can get us where we want to go. To those who say “we don’t need science” I say “then throw away your mobile phone, your TV and your fridge”. These inspirational men and women show us what a solid science-based education can achieve and we (in the UK) need more of it, not less.
Every few seconds, something happened on the approach to Mars landing that was planned for in detail, and the data were compared to nominal values, and hundreds of new calculations were performed by JPL engineers. The depth of planning whereby hundred of thousands of data points were anticipated, second by second, made this possible.
And nothing was left to chance. The JPL risk register must have been a monumental document and, as NASA senior engineers reminded the press conference, there are still a lot of checks to make (I am writing this two hours after wheels down). But by actively managing each risk, rather than fearing them or relying on hope, the engineers seem to have achieved a miracle. But it isn’t a miracle:
To redact a famous quote from the movie Zulu
Colour Sergeant Bourne: It’s a miracle.
Lieutenant John Chard: If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineering miracle.
Colour Sergeant Bourne: And active risk management, sir, with some guts behind.
Test and Test Again
We learned at the press conference (though far from a surprise) that many of the engineering tests of critical mission systems failed – some, time and time again. So what did the engineers do? They re-designed components and went back and tested again – until they got it right. The Curiosity systems have all been successfully tested to three times the planned mission life of two years.
Everything is planned to be better or more robust than it needs to be. The lead EDL engineer, Adam Steltzner, joked that he made his team add extra fuel capacity to ensure that the retro rockets, which hovered the craft above the surface and lowered the rover by sky crane, would not run out of fuel. He apologised to his team, because, of the 400kg of fuel it started with, there were 140kg left when Curiosity touched down
In an environment like NASA, influence and persuasion are both easy and difficult at the same time. “Easy” because, for all of the passion on display at touch-down, one mode of persuasion reigns supreme: hard data interpretted by reasoned logic, via advanced mathematics. “Hard” because the people making the decisions will have demanded the highest possible standards of data gathering and the greatest possible rigour in its analysis.
How many hundreds of scientists and engineers were involved in this effort? I heard the number, but failed to note it. But the JPL, NASA and other space agency teams from around the world, and the contractors that supported them all had to be co-ordinated in a project leadership effort that makes any that I could have aspired to seem tiny.
Value for Money
This was a 1.7 billion doallar project. But at under $6 for every man woman and child in the United States it seems good value to me. Our biggest financial institutions lost more than that in reckless gambles. As planetary science lead John Grotzinger said, “That’s the cost of a movie ticket. And that’s a movie I want to see.” Hear hear.
Mars Science Laboratory project manager, Peter Theisinger described Curiosity as “a priceless national asset”. That it is – and an asset for the whole of humanity, I believe.
Adam Steltzner came across to me as the human star of the EDL show and the follow-up press conference. He was Lead Engineer for the Entry Descent and Landing (and is expecting his second daughter in three weeks). Nearly in tears, he related the success of the landing at the press conference and went on to tell how he was instantly drawn to the name “Curiosity” for the rover, from among the hundreds of competition entries from US schools. I agree. Curiosity is the defining feature of humanity. It is what constantly allows us to make astonishing achievements.
Smart to Wise
NASA’s achievement was not just the product of smart engineering, but of wise decisions. The project involves all seven pillars of wisdom:
… the discipline of a ten year+ programme
… seing what the completed project could look like
… learning from successive iterations of thousands of design elements
… collaborating selflessly
… making the right decisions at the right time
… constant acknowledgement of everybody’s contribution
… these people are all experts in their fields
Smart to Wise is my contribution to thinking about how you can move from being smart to being truly wise.
“In Smart to Wise Mike has brought together a wealth of information, insights and wisdom to assist anyone in their journey of personal evolution. It is both theoretical and practical and will become an invaluable handbook for leaders, coaches, and all in the personal development industry.”
Simon Tyler, author of The Simple Way
The Smart to Wise website, with articles, videos, a bookstore and testimonials, is at smarttowise.co.uk