NASA Advisors Explain Mars Mission Failures to a Concerned Congress

By Keith Cowing
April 12, 2000
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Mars Climate OrbiterToday’s hearings were the first of several the House Science Committee plans to hold regarding recent Mars mission failures. In closing the hearings, House Science Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner said that NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and other guests would be appearing before the committee next month. Sensenbrenner also clearly stated his committee’s intent upon being a “part of the solution” as NASA examines the causes of these failures and seeks to institute remedies. The tone taken by all of the committee members was balanced, but some clear exasperation by members at the sort of mistakes that were made was evident in the remarks of nearly all of the Committee.

At the core of the Committee’s concerns was the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) mission because of simple metric Vs English units conversions and its subsequent crash on Mars; the loss of the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) apparently due to one bad line of software and its crash on Mars; and the disappearance of the twin DS-2 probes which were simply not ready for launch in the first place.

In opening the hearings, Sensenbrenner read from a prepared statment and said “Let me be clear-it is not our job, or our intent, to try to run NASA from Capitol Hill. Our role is not to try to micromanage each mission, project,
or program. But, after reading these reports, I am left to wonder: who was managing them? The information in these reports leads me to believe that the issue
of effective management is the major issue facing NASA. Whether cost, schedule and other limitations were too tight, whether there were
personnel or other shortages-all of these come down to issues of management. Simply throwing more money or more people at the problem will
not address the underlying management issues uncovered in these reports.”

Thomas Young, chairman of the Mars Program Independent Assessment Team and John Casani, chairman of the Mars Polar Lander Special Review Board testified. Much of what they had to say echoed their statements at the 28 March 2000 NASA press conference where their respective committee’s reports were released. They cited insufficient program reserves, lack of communication between NASA headquarters, JPL, and Lockheed Martin; no clear central focal point at NASA for Mars exploration; lack of mentoring of younger employees by older ones; the lack of sufficient personnel to perform needed tasks, and an unclear interpretation of what the agency’s “Faster-Better-Cheaper” motto meant when it came time to actually building spacecraft.

There were also serious flaws in the testing done before the Mars Polar Lander and DS-2 probes were launched. Under questioning from Rep. Sensenbrenner, Casani admitted that no systems-wide, top-down test had been done on the MPL spacecraft prior to launch. When asked why this was not done, he said that he did not know why – but in hindsight, it should have been done. Sensenbrenner then reminded the witnesses of a 3 April 1998 NASA requirement that all programs have a risk management plan in place. Casani said that the MPL did not manage risk in the “classical sense” but that risk was addressed in the overall management of the project.

Mars Polar LanderSensenbrenner then asked if Casani or Young’s teams interviewed anyone from the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA HQ. Both replied that they had not. Explanations as to why this was not done focused on an interest (expressed more clearly by Casani) that the teams sought to interview the individuals who actually worked on the project and that the people at NASA HQ were not directly involved.

Rep. Hall, reading losely from his prepared statment, noted that the Faster-Better-Cheaper model was a radical departure from the way NASA had done things in the past and wondered aloud why NASA did not take the time to look for signs of stress as this new approach was implemented. Neither witness had a clear answer.

Rep. Rohrabacher then said that he felt that those who say that more people and/or more money are the solution to this problem are taking the easy way out – that management changes are possibly at the core of what should be done. He then focused on the fact that tests were not done on the entire MPL vehicle but rather on various systems in parallel. Of particular note was the fact that the landing leg deployment test was not done in synchrony with the test of the sensors that would send the signal to the legs to deploy. Casani noted that Lockheed Martian had done an initial test but since the sensors had been wired in wrong they did not reveal potential problems until the wiring problems was noted and the test was redone.

Rep. Ehlers focused on the metric Vs English problem that doomed the Mars Climate Orbiter. Noting that metric system was an international standard in science and engineering he was somewhat exasperated at the notion that there would still be some confusion on the issue and moreover, that NASA was even using English units in the first place.

Casani went into some detail on this issue noting that some email traffic was exchanged between JPL and Lockheed Martin noting that one of the dimensions on the MCO’s trajectory was off, but no one caught the full magnitude of the problem – or the cause – until after the spacecraft crashed into Mars.

Rep. Green picked up on this issue and asked how a shortage of money could have caused the metric mix up. Casani responded that it wasn’t the money but rather not having enough people cross checking things so as to catch things such as this before they become problems. There is some linkage between money and people, of course, since smaller budgets cause the number of staff to be limited.

Rep. Woolsey asked the witnesses to describe the fee structure wherein Lockheed Martin performed the MPL contract noting that incentives are usually the main way to entice contractors to perform. Casani replied that it had originally been a $75-85 million cost-reimbursable contract between JPL and Lockheed Martin-Denver but that modifications related to risk management had increased the overall value to $122 million. Had the mission been successful Lockheed Martin would have stood to get a maximum of $12-13 million. Casani noted, however, that as cost mitigation was pursued by JPL and Lockheed Martin, Lockheed Martin invested between $9-10 million of its possible award fee leaving only $2 million untapped. Since the failure of the mission Lockheed Martian has returned the remaining $2 million and, according to Casani “Lockheed Martin has not earned a penny” on this project.

Rep. Weldon then asked if there was a change in the way that the project personnel identified flaws and recommended changes between the beginning and the end of the investigation. Young replied that there had been a change noting that initial reactions from project personnel were that they had run a lean efficient project. As the list of things that were risky began to mount during the investigation, they saw that there were some systemic things that were not readily apparent on first examination. This was especially noticeable as the tests for the Mars 2001 lander (a near twin of MPL) began to show a series of incremental problems.

Rep. Gutknecht tried to find out if any one had been identified as being responsible for these failures. Young replied that his committee “did not try and establish a hierarchy of blame”. He then repeated what he and Casani had said before – that miscommunication was found at all managerial interfaces between HQ, JPL, and Lockheed Martin. Gutknecht replied that this seems to have been “a management leadership problem”. The witnesses agreed.

Rep. Smith asked who’s idea it was in the first place to leave the telemetry subsystem off of the MPL. Casani replied that this was a joint JPL/Lockheed martin decision but that it was not so much a decision to leave the telemetry system off as it was a decision not to put one on in the first place. The logic being that that system did not directly contribute to the success of that mission. In hindsight Casani agreed that such a capability should be included so as to allow NASA to learn from its mistakes and make I more likely that future missions would not suffer the same fate.

Rep. Sensenbrenner closed by thanking Young and Casani for having provided a service to their country and noting that the exploration of Mars is important for science as well as for our country. As was mentioned at the opening of this summary, Sensenbrenner made it clear that there would be additional hearings and that the Science Committee was going to be an active partner in helping NASA to fix these problems.

Background Information

° Science Committee Media Advisory, Hearing charter, and Witness list

° Opening Statement by Rep. Sensenbrenner

° Opening statement by Rep. Hall

° Testimony of Thomas Young, Chairman of the Mars Program Independent Assessment Team before the House Science Committee

° Testimony of John Casani, Chairman of the JPL Special Review Board before the House Science Committee

° NASA Reveals Probable Cause of Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space-2 Mission
, SpaceRef, 28 March 2000

° Two Mars Mission Reports Delivered to NASA; A Third to Follow, SpaceRef, 13 March 2000

° Focus on Mars Polar Lander, SpaceRef

° Whole Mars Catalog, SpaceRef

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.