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Mars Exploration Rover illustration
The success of Spirit and Opportunity proved NASA can learn from its failures, but can it also learn from its successes? (credit: NASA/JPL)

The thin line between success and catastrophe

Thirteen months ago the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated above east Texas. After six and a half months of inquiry, the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded among its findings that the culture at NASA had prevented the agency from properly identifying and correcting long-standing problems in the space shuttle program. Introspection and dissent were suppressed in part because mission managers assumed that successful flights of the space shuttle proved that everything was working properly.

NASA has now landed two highly sophisticated spacecraft on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, a significant technological achievement. The spacecraft have survived their most dangerous challenges and appear to be on their way to successful missions examining the geology of Mars and searching for evidence of past water.

The Mars rover missions seem to demonstrate that at least the planetary exploration part of NASA can learn from its failures, but the real question is if it can learn from its successes.

These successes appear to symbolize a dramatic comeback for NASA’s planetary exploration program, which had a tumultuous and transformational decade. In 1993 NASA lost an expensive spacecraft known as Mars Observer as it approached the red planet, the first probe the agency had sent there in seventeen years. When Mars Observer died it was a wake-up call for many in the community, and allowed the NASA administrator, Dan Goldin, to implement a broad change in the way that NASA performed, and thought about, robotic missions, not only to Mars, but for all planetary exploration. Rather than a few big, complicated, expensive missions often separated by a decade or more, NASA embraced the philosophy of “faster better cheaper” and began launching more, smaller, less expensive, and admittedly less capable spacecraft. Some critics claimed that “faster better cheaper” meant you get to pick only two, but NASA disproved this notion, at Mars and elsewhere, starting in the mid-1990s.

The philosophy suffered a setback in late 1999 however when two Mars spacecraft were lost. Although late night talk show hosts joked about how the agency could not convert metric to English units, the ultimate cause of these losses was that the agency had gotten giddy with cost cutting and reduced the budgets for these missions too much. That had cut into testing and thus simple mistakes common to all complex projects did not get corrected. Program managers became less concerned with what could go wrong. The current Mars rovers had much larger budgets for pre-flight testing. This experience seems to demonstrate that at least the planetary exploration part of NASA can learn from its failures.

But the real question is if it can learn from its successes. In between backslaps and handshakes, project managers have publicly praised the dedication of their teams and mentioned their hard work and long hours devoted to the program. Privately, however, members of the team have admitted that they came far closer to that thin line that separates stunning success and public praise from embarrassing failure and probing investigations. Because of the need to rush spacecraft development to meet a short launch window to Mars, the rover designers decided to use an airbag landing system developed for the earlier Pathfinder lander that was barely suited to the task. Some vital tests were skipped not because there was no money, but because there was no time. Many team members were also psychologically strained far more than they should have been. One team member commented that the joke at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was that the rovers should have been named “Divorce” and “Exhaustion” for the toll the project took on their personal lives. As one NASA manager on another project said about what he saw on the rover team, “I am confident that if this project had failed, a failure review board would have reached embarrassing, if not devastating, conclusions about the way it was conceived and implemented.” Even some of the senior scientists on the rover team have publicly admitted that they will not do future projects in the same way.

One team member commented that the joke at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was that the rovers should have been named “Divorce” and “Exhaustion” for the toll the project took on their personal lives.

President Bush has outlined a new path for NASA taking it back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. Members of Congress are interested in seeing evidence that NASA’s human spaceflight program has begun to implement the cultural change that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board declared is needed. Although the CAIB made it clear that it had investigated only the space shuttle program, this distinction has often been lost by the agency’s critics who assumed that all of NASA needed reform. Now, ironically, there is a danger that this distinction will be forgotten by the agency’s advocates as well. There will be a tendency by some in NASA and the press to point to the Mars rovers as evidence that NASA not only is capable of change, but has largely recovered as an agency.

But anyone who equates success with good health will miss one of the CAIB’s major points: success is not an indication that all is well. Dozens of successful missions prior to STS-107 hid several major technical problems with the space shuttle and many managerial problems within the human spaceflight program. Success should in fact be an incentive to be even more introspective and critical in order to find the hidden failures that may create problems in the future. The best managers realize that they must be forever vigilant.

Spirit and Opportunity will undoubtedly leave an impressive scientific legacy. But their managerial legacy is equally important. If NASA’s managers and operators come away from this effort with a much better understanding of just how close they came to failure, and realize that they can never grow complacent even when everything goes as it is supposed to, then there is hope for the space agency after all.


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