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MIT aids investigation of Mars mishaps

When NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin went outside the space agency to investigate recent failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander spacecraft, he chose several people with MIT ties to play key roles in the investigation.

Five members of the 18-person Mars Program Independent Assessment Team (MPIAT) were affiliated with MIT, including Professor Maria T. Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences; Professor Brian C. Williams, the Boeing Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and Dr. Herbert Kottler, associate director of Lincoln Laboratory. Thomas Young, chairman of the MPIAT, was a Sloan Fellow (SM 1972). Retired Maj. Gen. Ralph Jacobson, president of Draper Laboratory from 1987-97, was also a member of the commission. The MPIAT began its work in early January and released its findings on March 28.

"I hope that the report enables a long-term realistic Mars exploration program to emerge," said Professor Zuber. "There was a race to return a sample on the shortest possible time frame in a woefully underfunded program that had virtually no chance for success. I personally think that interest in exploring Mars is here to stay and that we should be thinking on a 10- to 20-year time frame rather than a five-year time frame. I hope that this can happen now that we have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed.

"The moral of the story is that in the quest to streamline design and development and to infuse new technology into exploration, it is essential not to lose sight of the basics," Professor Zuber continued. "None of the recent losses occurred due to technological innovation. The losses occurred because the system of checks and balances broke down. People failed at doing things they knew how to do."

The MPIAT closely studied the relationships between the key organizations responsible for conducting the Mars '98 exploration campaign. The report identified ineffective communication between these organizations, which harmed the missions' prospects for success.

"The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a quality organization that has been doing a superb job for NASA in planetary exploration," said Dr. Kottler. "JPL was shaken by the failure of the Mars '98 missions, and NASA as a whole was. But I feel strongly that they will emerge as stronger organizations as a result of implementing the recommendations from our investigation.

"The source of many of the difficulties that developed were related to communications problems between the key organizations: NASA, JPL, Caltech and the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin," he said. "The relationship between JPL and Caltech was very interesting. It was more remote and quite different than the relationship that MIT has with Lincoln Laboratory. I have always found that MIT is very supportive of Lincoln Laboratory, but I didn't see that Caltech played as strong a role for JPL."

The MPIAT endorsed NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" concept as an effective methodology for the development of space missions, if properly managed. The Mars '98 projects failed because of inadequate funding resources and the difficulty of managing excessive program risks relative to schedule, cost, science requirements and launch vehicle constraints, the panel found.

"The challenge we face is how to enable small teams of engineers to build spacecraft that are both extraordinary in their capabilities and at the same time robust in their reliability," said Professor Williams. "In order to help engineers deal with the complexity of spacecraft systems, we need to develop computational methods that help engineers to reason through possible system interactions and failures during the design phase, and that enable spacecraft to respond to novel circumstances autonomously."

"NASA should adopt an entrepreneurial culture with a diversity of approaches to stimulate competition in the development of planetary missions," said Professor Williams. "NASA should consider centers of excellence throughout the nation where expertise and talent can be brought to bear on the technology needed for Mars exploration. We need to capitalize on the enormous enthusiasm that exists in places like MIT for exploring Mars."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 12, 2000.

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