- Press Release
- Feb 1, 2023
Testimony of John Casani, Chairman of the JPL Special Review Board before the House Science Committee
BY JOHN R. CASANI
APRIL 13, 2000
NASA’s Mars Surveyor Program (MSP) began in 1994 with plans to send spacecraft to Mars every 26 months. Mars Global
Surveyor (MGS), a global mapping mission, was launched in 1996 and is currently orbiting Mars. Mars Surveyor ’98 consisted of
Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) and Mars Polar Lander (MPL). Lockheed Martin Astronautics (LMA) was the prime contractor for
Mars Surveyor ’98. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Surveyor
Program for NASA’s Office of Space Science.
MPL, with the two DS2 probes, was launched on 3 January 1999 for arrival at Mars on 3 December 1999. All three were mounted
to a shared cruise stage, which provided Earth communications, power, and propulsion support services for the trip to Mars. All
were targeted to a sector at approximately 76°S, 195°W on the edge of the Martian south polar layered terrain. The length of
the planned MPL mission after landing was 90 days; the DS2 mission was two days. The probes were to be released from the
cruise stage after lander-cruise stage separation, plummeting to the surface to impact about 60 kilometers from the MPL landing
MPL approached Mars on 3 December 1999, apparently in good health. A final trajectory-correction maneuver, TCM-5, was
executed 6.5 hours before entry. At 12:02 p.m. PST, the spacecraft slewed to entry attitude. At this attitude, the antenna pointed
off-Earth, and the signal was lost as expected. Lander touchdown was expected to occur at 12:14 p.m. PST, with a 45-minute data
transmission to Earth scheduled to begin 24 minutes later. It was expected that the first data from the DS2 probes would be
received on 4 December at 7:25 p.m. PST, about 7 hours after MPL touchdown. However, no communications from MPL or the
probes were received.
On 16 December 1999, in accordance with Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) policy, the Laboratory Deputy Director appointed a
Special Review Board (the Board) to examine the loss of MPL and DS2. The Board included members from JPL, industry, and
academia, as follows:
- Arden Albee – Caltech
- Steven Battel – Battel Engineering
- Richard Brace – JPL
- Garry Burdick – JPL
- Peter Burr * GSFC, ret
- John Casani, Chair – JPL
- Duane Dipprey – JPL, ret.
- Jeffrey Lavell – NASA Independent Program Assessment Office
- Charles Leising – JPL
- Duncan MacPherson – JPL
- Wesley Menard – JPL
- Richard Rose -TRW, ret.
- Robert Sackheim – MSFC
- Al Schallenmuller – LMA, ret.
- Charles Whetsel, Deputy Chair – JPL
Two consultants, Frank Locatell (JPL, ret.) and Parker Stafford (LMA, ret.), who had been closely associated with the MPL
development process, were engaged to assist the Board in its investigation. Bruce Murray (Caltech) was assigned by NASA to
keep the Administrator informed of the Board’s activities and progress.
The Board was tasked to:
1) Determine the possible root causes for the loss of the two missions.
2) Identify actions needed to assure future success in similar Mars landings.
Given the total absence of telemetry data and no response to any of the attempted recovery actions, it was not expected that a
probable cause, or causes, of failure could be determined.
ASSESSMENT OF FAILURE MODES
The JPL Special Review Board and its consultants identified a number of failure scenarios, which for convenience were
organized by mission phase. The failure scenarios for MPL are presented in Section 6 and those for DS2 are presented in
Section 8 of the full Report* submitted as part of this testimony.
The Board organized itself into seven Review Teams, in the areas of Environment and Landing Site, Mechanical Systems,
Dynamics and Control, Communications/Command and Data Handling, Propulsion and Thermal, Avionics, and Flight
Software/Sequencing. Each Review Team provided an assessment in their respective areas related to the design and test practices
relevant to the hypothesized failures. The Review Teams’ Findings, Process Assessments, and Lessons Learned are presented in
Section 7 of the Report for MPL and Section 9 of the Report for DS2.
The Review Teams conducted their investigations through meetings and teleconferences with Mars Surveyor ’98 personnel from
LMA and JPL, and DS2 project personnel, throughout January and February 2000. Plenary sessions of the Board were held
through the first part of March, during which the Board determined its Findings and Recommendations (see Sections 3 and 4 of
the Report) and the system-level Findings, Assessments, and Lessons Learned (see Section 5of the Report).
The following failure modes were assessed as plausible by the Board:
- Premature shutdown of descent engines.
* Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2 Loss – JPL Special Review Board Report, JPL D-18709.
- Surface conditions exceed landing design capabilities
- Loss of control due to dynamic effects.
- Landing site not survivable.
- Backshell/parachute contacts lander.
- Loss of control due to center-of-mass offset.
- Heatshield fails due to micrometeoroid impact.
The Board found compelling evidence that premature shutdown of the descent engines was the cause of the loss of MPL. It is
important to note that there are no corroborating flight data to support this finding, so other failure modes cannot be ruled out.
A magnetic sensor is provided in each of the three landing legs to sense touchdown when the lander contacts the surface,
initiating the shutdown of the descent engines. Data from MPL engineering development unit deployment tests, and Mars 2001
deployment tests showed that a spurious touchdown indication occurs in the Hall Effect touchdown sensor during landing leg
deployment (while the lander is connected to the parachute). The software logic accepts this transient signal as a valid touchdown
event if it persists for two consecutive readings of the sensor. The tests showed that most of the transient signals at leg
deployment are indeed long enough to be accepted as valid events, therefore, it is almost a certainty that at least one of the three
would have generated a spurious touchdown indication that the software accepted as valid.
The software – intended to ignore touchdown indications prior to the enabling of the touchdown sensing logic – was not
properly implemented, and the spurious touchdown indication was retained. The touchdown sensing logic is enabled at 40 meters
altitude, and the software would have issued a descent engine thrust termination at this time in response to a (spurious)
At 40 meters altitude, the lander has a velocity of approximately 13 meters per second, which, in the absence of thrust, is
accelerated by Mars gravity to a surface impact velocity of approximately 22 meters per second (the nominal touchdown velocity
is 2.4 meters per second). At this impact velocity, the lander could not have survived.
Unlike the case with MPL, there was no one failure mode that was identified as being most probable. However, there were four
failure modes that were determined to be plausible and they are listed below. Refer to Section 8 for a more detailed treatment of
the DS2 failure modes.
- Both probes bounce on impact due to unanticipated surface effects.
- Both probes suffer electronic or battery failure at impact
- Probes fail due to ionization breakdown in Mars atmosphere.
- Probe lands on its side, interfering with antenna performance.
The DS2 mission was designed to validate 10 advanced, high risk, high-payoff technologies. As originally approved, the
development plan included a system-level qualification test that was ultimately deleted. This represented an acknowledged risk
to the program that was assessed and approved by JPL and NASA management on the basis of cost and schedule considerations
and best use of available resources. The absence of a system-level, high-impact qualification test compromised the ground
validation of the targeted technologies, and the loss of both probes precluded flight validation.
Both the MPL and DS2 projects made noteworthy efforts to reduce the cost of implementing flight projects in response to severe
and unprecedented technical and fiscal constraints. Although the MPL and DS2 missions were lost, there are valuable lessons to
be learned from both, which the full Report attempts to set forth.
One lesson that should not be learned is to reject out of hand all the management and implementation approaches used by
these projects to operate within constraints that, in hindsight, were not realistic. A more appropriate point of departure would be
to evaluate the approaches, and improve, modify, or augment them in response to implementing the Recommendations contained