Wednesday, May 24, 2006


I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. ~Albert Einstein

Voyager 1 and 2 appear to be at the edge of the heliopause after a trip of 28 years. To slip into the vernacular, this is freakin' amazing. Thanks to their tiny nuclear power plants, they're still transmitting information back to the Deep Space Network (given the recent report by the GAO, the Voyager satellites might outlast the DSN).

Meanwhile, on Mars, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity are into the third year of their ninety-day mission and still truckin'. Spirit is dragging a stuck wheel, and Opportunity could use a trip to the rover-wash to clean off its solar panels, but these odd-looking explorers continue on long after their warranties have expired.

Let's face it: When we do it right, we do it right. When we do it wrong, we really do it wrong. How wrong? Challenger. Columbia. Mars Polar Lander. Genesis. There's always a post mortem which finds that NASA's management methods stink, and no one has done anything about since the last time. I think this misses the point.

To be sure NASA has gone through some debatable management methodologies. The “Better, Faster, Cheaper” philosophy may have given us the original rover, but it also gave us a Mars probe that missed the planet altogether because the contractors and the NASA controllers were not using the same measurement system.

Speaking of contractors, it was Morton-Thoikol management bullying their engineering group to “put your management hat on” that was the final straw that caused the Challenger disaster. It's easy after the fact to say that the O-ring design was fatally flawed. Where were these experts before that was proved disastrously? Even the Morton-Thiokol engineers who were arguing against launch could only produce a few inconclusive tests to justify their concern.

It's easy to be smart after the fact (I should know; I am positively brilliant, in hindsight). The problem is that we only analyze the failures. Why was their no board of inquiry, complete with admirals, generals, and Richard Feynman to find out why the Voyager missions performed so well? Will there be an investigation into how NASA could create Mars rovers that could outperform everyone's wildest dreams? I doubt it.

I have never been completely convinced that we learn more from failure than from success. We do learn from the mistakes of others to some extent, but we tend to celebrate success without figuring out what the team did to produce that success. Well, perhaps I misspeak a bit. There are books about secrets to success, but they tend to focus on gimmicks and shortcuts, as though we're afraid that success may have something to do with things like hard work, perserverance, and dedication.

One thing no one can say about space explorers, scientists, and engineers is that they're lazy. These people work long and hard. Yet some are fabulously successful, while other fail or at least fail to completely meet their goals. The tendency is to blame the failures on bad luck (who could have predicted that the ultrasonic freemis would go bad 10 seconds after launch?) and forgivable human error.

Ultimately, it has to be people. The freemis failed because someone shorted on the testing. In the successes, no one cuts corners. Every problem is addressed and solutions tested until the potential for failure is minimized. You can never guarantee that something totally unforeseen might happen. A meteor might hit the satellite right after it enters orbit, for example. But you need to do everything possible to ensure that human error or lack of effort isn't the cause of a failure.

Consider the Apollo fire. After striking successes with Mercury and Gemini, the pressure to get to the moon was as great as ever because we still seemed to lag behind the Russians. Remember, for all of its wonder, the lunar explorations were mostly a matter of politics. We were going to the moon because the Russians were trying to, and we were going to be first. The Apollo capsule was a complete mess from the getgo. The astronauts tried to tell the manufacturer and NASA, but no one would stop to make it right.

When three men died, they stopped and made it right. Gene Krantz has never said this, but I think it was at this point that his philosophy that saved the Apollo 13 crew was born: “Failure is not an option.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Mars rovers. The original little rover was supposed to be a proof of concept. Had the rover team bought into that “Better, Faster, Cheaper” nonsense, the rovers would be two piles of junk lying in the Martian sands. Instead they tested and found out that a lot of things just didn't scale up. The air bag concept could have been a disaster; tests showed the bags rupturing with the bigger load. The parachute system would have caused the rovers to leave holes bigger than the Mars Polar Lander made. Instead of buying into the “scale-up” concept and then applying band-aids when things didn't go well, the rover team dug deep and changed what had to be changed, like changing the parachute design, and seriously fortifying the airbags (which the next rover won't use at all).

We need to know how teams like those that launched the Voyagers, the rovers, Cassini-Huygens, Deep Impact, and Stardust operated. Let's start analyzing what went right and how we can do it again.

It's cheaper in the long run.

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