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Credit Curiosity's successful Mars landing -- as well as others before it -- on a dramatic shift in the way NASA handles challenges, says its chief engineer.
NASA's recent success in landing and deploying the tweeting Curiosity rover on Mars was more than a technical success -- it is the result of opening up the agency to fresh, unconventional thinking.
In a WOBI presentation a few months back (prior to the recent Curiosity landing), Brian Muirhead chief engineer at NASA, explained how a corporate culture that encouraged disruptive innovation paved the way for a cost-effective and successful Mars landing program. Corporate culture has long been a key challenge for the space agency -- independent commissions studying the two Shuttle disasters concluded that NASA's insular command-and-control culture led to the oversights that doomed the Challenger and Columbia spacecraft.
It was innovation -- or more appropriately, disruption -- borne of necessity. NASA's annual budget was shrinking, while the cost of interplanetary travel was growing. The agency's leaders realized that they could not continue business as usual. Muirhead describes a meeting in which NASA administrator gave Muirhead's team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory a tough mandate: take risks, but do not fail. "What would most people do?" Muirhead says. "They would go back to their office, sit down at their computer, and polish up their resume."
Muirhead's team was tasked with sending a spacecraft to Mars within a three-year timeframe -- on a budget of less than $200 million. That's "less of the cost of the movie Titanic," Muirhead recalls.
NASA's approach was to adopt the disruptive technology and business practices espoused by Clayton Christensen, he adds -- finding low-cost ways of meeting underserved or unserved needs. To build such a culture of disruptive innovation, Muirhead advises, first to establish an atmosphere of openness and integrity. "The leaders set the tone. How you model relationships with your team is critical. Everyone will follow that. If you want high performance and integrity, you need to model openness and honesty."
Encouraging microknowledge -- versus micromanagemet -- will also foster greater innovation, he says. "Everybody hates the micromanager. Microknowledge. is what everybody will get a hold of and will help you when problems show up."
Aug 9, 2012
It's not clear from the article, nor is it very clear from the snippets of the full talk in the video (apparently given in 2004), but this was for the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, the first successful lander on Mars. NASA had just suffered two disastrous Mars missions in the late '90s under the mantra "Faster, Better, Cheaper". The idea was to send more missions that did less instead of the big huge missions such as Galileo (Jupiter) and Cassini (Saturn). Supposedly putting all their eggs in a big spectacular mission basket that failed would damage NASA far more than several smaller missions, only a few of which failed. It was also thought it would be easier to get funding for a bunch of smaller missions rather than one big one. With regard to Mars exploration a launch window opens every two years, and NASA wanted to have something to send to Mars every two years rather than once or twice a decade to maintain public interest in Mars. Unfortunately, these smaller, cheaper missions resulted in cut corners and a high failure rate. NASA's reputation and budget was in danger as a result. Hence the events talked about in the video. Pathfinder was relatively cheap, but the cost of future Mars missions has gotten expensive again. The Opportunity/Spirit rovers (which landed in 2004) cost $820 million (before the missions were extended because the rovers survived so long), and Curiosity cost about $2.5 billion. So once again NASA has put most of its money behind big expensive missions. They seem to have a higher success rate, or are often recoverable when partial failures occur (e.g., the failure of the high gain antenna on Galileo). The development of Curiosity was hardly a quick and dirty affair. Development started around 2005 and went through a great deal of testing because of the new landing strategy. It also was originally set for the 2009 launch window, but had to be postponed to the 2011 launch window because of problems with the electric motors and parachute. A lot of new technologies had to be developed for the mission, and it's clear that top-down management structure has relatively little to do with the success of those. Future Mars missions are now in doubt because they cost so much. President Obama proposed a 20% budget cut ($300 million) in JPL this year that will result in laying off much of the team that landed Curiosity on Mars since no new Mars missions have been approved. All that expertise will be gone forever as a result if the team disbands.