The Challenges Ahead – from “JPL Universe”

By SpaceRef Editor
December 16, 1999
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Online at JPL in Adobe Acrobat format at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/info/universe/un991215.pdf

The Challenges Ahead

JPL Universe

15 December 1999

Remarks from Caltech President Dr. David Baltimore

I really come here to salute the tenacity and the resiliency of the individuals and teams at the Lab. You are American explorers of the 20th and soon to be the 21st century. You are the Lewis and Clarks of our time. The determination that you and your predecessors have displayed in the face of half a century of unimaginable challenges is a testament to humankind’s spirit of exploration. The poise and fortitude you have exhibited in the face of recent adversities is an inspiring example of the courage that has exemplified the early explorers of this country. The American public knows that you were given some of the toughest jobs we have. Doing the impossible is in fact sometimes impossible. Day in and day out, you’re tackling unimaginable problems in planning, design and implementation. And that puts you in the forefront of change. So you have to adapt to the continually challenging new environment. You’re repeatedly asked to do that: to do more with less.

Probably more often than not, you’ve made those Herculean tasks appear so easy that I think it masks the real risks that are involved, and raise sometimes unrealistic expectations. Building bridges to the cosmos is not a one mission, one generation and one century undertaking. We’re in the business of weaving contemporary dreams into future possibilities. There will always be rude awakenings, but proving your mettle in this adventure will feed your own curiosity and promote knowledge.

We’ve been asked to solve complex problems with minimal resources. We now have to find the right mix of resources and time, and it’s a dynamic process finding that balance. The continuity of ambitious and able leadership at JPL will fuel the quest for a strategy that will give us more assurances of success in the future. And we will work hard to make sure that the past week of silence from another world does not make those on Earth deaf to the difficulties that caused it. Through it all, you should know there is one constant: Caltech faculty and administration stands behind you. You are part of us. In the laboratories and classrooms at Caltech, we know that this journey of discovery is often frustrating, even painful. You have the assurance of our own experience that the sweet taste of success will again be on all of our lips.

On behalf of Caltech, my message is that we are all honored to be in this together. Together, we are the number one university, and the number one laboratory of space exploration. And on a personal level, let me take this occasion to wish you and your loved ones a comforting and joyous holiday. Thank you.

Remarks from JPL Director Dr. Edward Stone

Good morning. Last month when we gathered here in this room I spoke about “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The focus then was landing on Mars. We redoubled our efforts to do every thing we knew to have a successful mission. Unfortunately, that did not happen. This has been hard not only for the Mars team but for all of us. We share a great disappointment and a true personal sadness about the loss, one that is shared by our friends, our families, and people all over the world. But this morning we need to concentrate on “Tomorrow” – where the Lab is headed in the days to come, and the role each of us can play in getting there.

Fixing the Problem

It goes without saying that our missions to Mars attract tremendous public interest. The eyes of the world are always upon us when we go to the red planet. When we succeed, we enjoy considerable praise, even adulation. When we do not succeed, we experience the other side of the coin: scrutiny, criticism, even ridicule. The last week has been very difficult. And the attention is far from over.

But scrutiny and criticism can be good things. We are accustomed to this as an internal exercise. We excel at “finding the flaw, and then fixing the problem” because this activity helps ensure mission success. In the weeks to come the very same process that we are so good at internally will be applied externally. It may help you to keep this thought in mind in the days to come.

As part of the assessment activity JPL will form its own internal review board, which will share its findings with a specially appointed NASA panel. The NASA panel seeks to ask questions not only about Mars Polar Lander but a number of broader topics, including reviewing the Mars Architecture plan and management structural issues.

Congress will also be interested and will likely conduct hearings once the NASA panel has completed its report. The press, of course, will pay special attention to all these activities.

So, the days ahead will not be easy. At times we will be uncomfortable with some of what is said about us. But at the end of the day, we will learn from what has happened and JPL will be a better place for it all.


And let us not forget all the support that has come our way this past week. It’s when times are difficult that you find out who really supports the space program. And we are very fortunate in the encouragement that has come our way. I’m sure you have seen the statement of support emailed to you by Executive Committee of the Caltech Board of Trustees, and I am especially grateful that David Baltimore is here today as he was late last Friday and again early Tuesday to personally lend his support and share his thoughts with us.

The media coverage has been fair and, in many cases, empathetic. Listen to what a Wall Street Journal editorial had to say yesterday: “NASA setbacks on Mars shouldn’t lead us to abandon space exploration. We should redouble our efforts instead.” NASA has been very supportive. Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for space science, was here to show his support for the Mars team, as was NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. The administrator came not only on Friday and stayed into the evening, but he changed his travel schedule so that he could come back Saturday night.

Leaders in Congress have gone on the record expressing their support. Representative David Dreier was here in the Mars mission control room on four separate occasions last week. And next week Chairman James Sensenbrenner of the House Science Committee and Representative James Rogan will be here at JPL to address the Lab.

On Wednesday the President also voiced his support, pointing out that landing on Mars is “rocket science” and voicing his opinion that we shouldn’t stop now.

Finally, the American people, as evidenced in a recent poll, are strongly in favor of planetary science. Now it’s our job to act on all of these expressions of support.

Let me turn to Mars. To state the obvious, this has not been a good year for us at Mars. Not since our robotic missions to the moon in the early ’60s have we experienced such a string of disappointments.

NASA has asked us to review the entire Mars Program. And that is what we are doing. They have not, as has been reported in the press, requested

us to review the entire planetary program. That said, what does it mean ‘to review’ the entire Mars Program? Let me start by saying what it doesn’t mean, based on NASA’s guidelines for the review:

  • The Mars Program is not being canceled.

  • The Mars Program is not moving somewhere else.

  • No money is being taken away from the Mars Program.

  • And no money is going to be taken away from other JPL projects to support Mars.

What the JPL review does mean is that we are stepping back, undertaking an assessment of where we are, and asking where we need to be going. We have established an architectural redefinition team under Chris Jones that will broadly involve the Laboratory in the formulation of a revised architectural plan. That plan will be presented to NASA by Jan. 17 and will be subsequently reviewed by the NASA panel by the end of January. I suspect that those ideas will then be shared with Congress, which understandably wants to know what we will be doing in the future to ensure mission success. Let me share with you some of the thinking already underway regarding Mars. More than anything else, we want to assure that we have adequate resources to undertake the missions in the revised architecture – both here on the ground and at Mars. NASA has stressed that we, not the schedule, should determine what and when we are ready to launch. Just as the shuttle does not launch until it is absolutely safe to do so, we are being urged that the same priority for mission safety hold true for our robotic missions: Do we have sufficient infrastructure to support our missions? Do we need a more robust system for navigation, surface reconnaissance, and communications? Are we moving at the right pace?

It’s unlikely that the ’01 Mars lander will be launched in ’01, and that would likely affect other missions downstream. I realize this will be a disruption, but as we very well know, landing on Mars is the hardest thing we now do, and returning a sample will be harder yet. We have to do everything we possibly can to ensure success so that we can continue exploring Mars with the support of the American people. If that means going somewhat less often, then that is what we must do.

What does this mean for science? There has always been – and there should always be – an inherent tension between the needs of engineers and scientists when designing a spacecraft. There are always constraints and compromises to be made. Science will continue to be central, but mission success starts with safety – because we have to land safely before we can do the science.

Broader Context

So that’s what we are doing regarding Mars. Now I’d like to place the Mars Program in the broader context of the Laboratory’s mission, beginning with a simple question: What is the motivation – the driving force – for what we are doing and how we are doing it?

We are engaged in nothing less than creating a new era of space exploration. Many of you have heard me speak to this before. The challenge of the first era at the beginning of the space age was simply to reach a destination. The second era was about trying to learn what was out there. We did that with large, expensive spacecraft that flew as infrequently as once a decade. These missions have given us, and will continue giving us, capability for global exploration.

The third era – where we are now – is radically different, because the future of the planetary program must shift from global to surface exploration. Our job now is land at a variety of other places, bring back samples of what is out there, and eventually establish permanent robotic outposts. Just as the first and second era were difficult for those who worked on them, the challenge in front of us is filled with difficulties. But that’s our job: doing what no one has done before. That’s the reason a place like JPL is needed.

To succeed in this new era – landing on the surface, bringing back samples and eventually establishing outposts – it is absolutely necessary that we go often. And to go often, we had to reduce the cost of our missions. And that’s precisely what we have done.

Right now our focus is on Mars. But the strategy of landing, returning samples and establishing robotic outposts applies to many places in the solar system, whether planets, moons, asteroids or comets. That’s our job in the early part of the 21st century. We need to learn how to do this job, because this is our future. And we will learn how to do it, both from our success and our losses.

Right now we are pained by our losses at Mars. But step back for a moment and consider how far we’ve come since the loss of the Mars Observer in August 1993. The loss of that mission, which cost about a billion dollars, was a turning point in the direction of the Laboratory. We decided not to put all our eggs into a single basket.

And think about what we have accomplished since. We launched Mars Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, Deep Space 1, Deep Space 2 and Stardust – all at a total cost roughly equivalent to that of Mars Observer. And think what all those missions represent. Mars Pathfinder was a spectacular success story with the public. Mars Global Surveyor is still orbiting Mars. Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander were losses, as was Deep Space 2. But even there we have invented new technologies and a new pathway that will certainly fly on future missions. Deep Space 1 represents a technological breakthrough in propulsion systems, and Stardust is now on its way to collecting and returning the first sample from beyond the Earth moon system. That’s what we have accomplished in just six years. Six missions – some successful, some not – that have helped prepare us for a new century of space exploration.

Faster, better, cheaper

Let me now turn to the questions of whether we are moving too fast, doing too much with too few people, and trying to do take on more than we can afford. These are questions that are on everyone’s mind at the Laboratory. Others are asking them as well. Let me add to the list.

  • Do we have all the resources we need to succeed?

  • Are we sharing resources effectively?

  • Are we working together efficiently as a team?

  • How do we ensure the success of other planetary missions?

We are going to ask all these questions. And we will find the answers and act upon them. That said, let me share my opinion.

We can’t turn back the clock to another era. I am convinced that the intelligent application of technology and process is the key to breakthroughs in exploration. I am personally committed to reshaping the way we do things. We have to work as a team so that the enormous strengths and capabilities of this Laboratory can be brought to bear on the challenges we face as the world’s leader in robotic exploration.

I suspect that the answer as to how we can best do our work has been captured in a recent USA Today editorial that urged that any review :

“… focus both on management issues within the agency and on the constraints Congress itself imposes. Faster better cheaper isn’t the sole problem, and it may be the only solution to modern realities. Truth is, NASA isn’t going to return soon to the billion dollar space probes of old. There isn’t the money. And it makes sense to conduct multiple smaller missions. The losses are less damaging when they occur, as they always have, and as they surely will in the future. The question is how, within the constraints of politics and money, to go faster better cheaper more wisely. “


We all know about the sign Harry Truman had on his desk: “The buck stops here.” Like Harry Truman, I believe the “buck stops at my desk.” I accept that accountability. But I also believe that each of us must accept responsibility for mission success. And mission success is measured both in the knowledge gained and in the knowledge we share with the American people.

We have a number of launches in the six weeks ahead. We have instruments aboard the Earth-observing Terra satellite, and ACRIMSAT will study the Sun. And in January our Shuttle Radar Topography Mapping mission is scheduled to fly. To say it again: we all share responsibility for mission success. Whatever job we hold, it’s always our responsibility to do our best and to step forward if something is not right and make our concerns known.

It ‘s also your responsibility to be a credit to the Laboratory in the sharing of knowledge. We will be – as we have always been – open to the media and their questions. But a word of caution: our words, just like our actions, have consequences. If you speak to the media, you speak as more than just an individual; you also take on the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the entire Lab. What you say, and how you say it, matters to everyone at the Laboratory. That’s the reason it is the Laboratory ‘s policy for you to always work in concert with our Media Relations Office when contacted by any member of the media, and I ask that you seek their assistance.

But before we communicate the knowledge we derive from our missions with the public, we have to succeed with our missions. And to succeed we have to do our job, and our job in the 21st century is going to be challenging.

I was reminded of this earlier this week when the Homer Hickam, the author of Rocket Boys – some know this book by its movie title, October Sky – emailed me with words of support. He suggested I turn to Chapter 19 of his book, and that evening I did just that. The chapter, by the way, is called “Picking Up and Going On.”

For those of you who don’t know about Homer, he is a rocket engineer who helped build the Saturn rockets that took our astronauts to the moon. Homer grew up in a coal mining town in West Virginia, where his father was the company manager. In high school at the time of Sputnik, Homer was obsessed with building rockets. At one point he convinced an older worker who had worked his way out of the mines and into the machine shop to make some nozzles for his rockets. That was against company rules, and the man was sent back down into the mines. Sometime later there was an accident, and the man died. Homer was devastated. “I felt,” he wrote “as if somebody had reached up inside me and turned off a switch.” Ridden with guilt, he decided to give up his dream of building rockets. And that would have been the end of it.

Then entered one of his teachers: Miss Riley. “Sonny,” she told Homer, “a lot has happened to you, probably more than I know. But I’m telling you, if you stop working on your rockets now, you will regret it the rest of your life… You’ve got to put all your hurt and anger aside so you can do your job… Your job, Sonny, is to build your rockets… You’ve got to give it everything you’ve got.” You are all Homer Hickams. A lot has happened to you, probably more than I know. But if you stop working on your rockets – on your projects – you too will re g ret it the rest of your life. You have to put all your hurt, your anger, aside, so you can do your job. Because your job is to build your rocket, because your rocket is going to open the doors to space exploration in the 21st century. Thank you.

SpaceRef staff editor.