Guiding the Path to Mars
"Take calculated risks." Gen. George S. Patton barked those marching orders as military strategy, but they work just as well when you're shooting for the moon-or Mars, for that matter.
Indeed, it's the very motto Charles Elachi has used to lead NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, Calif., to conquer not only the Red Planet but also the moons of Saturn.
When Elachi was promoted to become director of the facility nearly six years ago, the mood among its engineers and scientists was decidedly gun-shy. Long the pride of American spacecraft technology, they'd taken an embarrassing public beating after two botched Mars attempts in 1999. The $327 million Mars Climate Orbiter made it all 400 million miles to the Red Planet, only to burn up in its thin atmosphere because engineers failed to convert crucial information from English to metric units. Three months later, the $120 million Mars Polar Lander went AWOL, too, leading Tonight Show host Jay Leno to joke that NASA officials had come out with a new book: "It's called Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: Where the Hell s the Polar Lander?"
Bad jokes aside, the effect on morale was devastating. "Losing their creation like that tore some of the MCO team up in ways that they didn't recover from for years," astronomer Steve Squyers writes in his recent book Roving Mars.
Red Rover. Caught up in a cycle of shrinking budgets and faster-better-cheaper directives from their NASA taskmasters (who hold JPL's purse strings), the Mars project managers had tried to cut too many corners. Scientists had made obvious mistakes, and contractors had supplied faulty information.
But Elachi, an unflappable Lebanon-born physicist with a relentless smile and a disposition to match, declined to point fingers. The 30-year JPL veteran, who previously made his mark using radar to create detailed images of planets and their moons, flatly turned down the Mars project manager's offer to resign and instead rallied the team to swing for the fences. The result was the Mars Exploration Rover, a project that included not just one but two spacecraft, Spirit and Opportunity.
The scope of the mission was daunting: safely land the rovers in two locations, then send each on a 90-day journey to collect, analyze, and beam back data and images of the terrain they encounter along the way. Even more off-putting, the scientists would need to have it all ready to go in just 27 months, in time for a short launch window, which, if missed, would mean waiting an additional two years for the planets to align.
Elachi knew the Mars program's future (indeed, the entire institution's) depended both on nurturing a willingness to take big-but calculated-risks and on making sure they paid off. "So in the nicest way possible, he'd say, 'Failure isn't going to be acceptable,'" recalls retired Navy Adm. Bobby Inman, who headed the committee that put Elachi in charge of JPL.
The list. He then set about doing everything possible to make sure the mission succeeded. Financial pressures from NASA may have pushed JPL-ers to leave more to chance than they should have with previous missions.
So at the beginning of the MER mission (and every one since), he asked team leaders to list everything that required testing and verification before launch could commence. "Then I took it, put it in my drawer, and pulled it out two years down the line," Elachi recalls of what is now known as JPL's "Incompressible Test List."
In the frenzy to ready the spacecraft, the list proved indispensable, ensuring that the team covered its bases and giving Elachi grounds to secure additional funding when it was most needed.
The mission launched on schedule (and just 17 percent over budget) in June 2003, and, after a few tense days in which a computer glitch was smoothed out, the rovers began an exploration that quickly exceeded all expectations-and, in fact, continues to this day.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.