On August 6, 2012, after an 8-month trip, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) was ready to plunge through the thin Martian atmosphere and land its rover named Curiosity onto the red planet. More than 3 million people were watching as this landing was streamed to the web, making this the biggest web-event NASA has ever set up. Hundreds of thousands were watching the landing in Times Square, and in universities and museums worldwide. Currently, Curiosity has almost 1 Million followers on Twitter. I see editorials about how cool science and engineering is in some of the top news blogs!
MSL’s technological challenge was unprecedented: Due to the comparatively large gravity of Mars and Curiosity’s large mass and precision instruments, the well-known parachute-airbag technology used by previous rovers was no longer possible, and a totally new technology had to be devised. During “seven minutes of terror” the system deployed the largest ever-built super-sonic balloon and used a robotic sky-crane that delivered the robot precisely and softly. According to JPL director Charles Elachi, the accuracy of this landing was equivalent to shooting a football from Cape Canaveral to the Rose bowl across the country and reliably hitting a specified chair. The speed at entry was such that it would cross from D.C. to L.A. in 10 minutes, and was slowed down accurately and precisely to a soft touch-town in Gale Crater. It was new technology at its best – risky, tough and successful.
People were excited all over JPL when I visited 2 days later, yet the mood was somber. The lab had achieved something amazing nobody on Earth could match. The team of scientists and engineers who built this exploration system should be proud! Pictures of the operations room erupting in cheers had gone around the world – but the cheers were replaced by anxiety regarding the future of the program and its participants.
For example, I talked to a former student who was among 20 or so Michigan alumni participating in MSL. He is a guy who rejected more job offers from top companies than anybody I know, just to work in space exploration. Our discussion was short as he suggested that his time at JPL is over after the MSL landing. He wanted to use me as a reference as he embarked on a job search since there is not one flight program in development at JPL after MSL. Sadly, this is the first time in fifty years!
The fact is there is a chance that more than half of the people cheering that night in the control room will have to leave their jobs and move on, although they are the only ones in the world who know how to build and land a rover such as Curiosity on a different planet. And with them will go the know-how they gained with Curiosity.
Under the current budget assumptions, and delayed by massive cuts to the Mars program by the Obama Administration and budget overruns in other projects, the next landing of a US rover on Mars will happen ten years from now – at the earliest. And there is a lot of nothing in the mission queue today. For reference, the cost of Curiosity was $8 per US citizen – basically less than a movie ticket. But, can we afford this in the US? I hope the answer is yes!
I am convinced it’s never a good idea – even in a time of financial crisis – if bean counters make strategic decisions. Bean counters can create short-time relief with long-term severe consequences. Every organization needs bean counters, but they need to be deployed tactically and deliberately – they cannot and should not be trusted to make strategic decisions for companies, for universities or for governments.
The result of this management mentality is superbly documented in Bob Lutz’s book “Car guys vs Bean counters” and so many other texts that are starting to pop up. In times of crisis, the best solution is leadership, not management. Leaders think about vision, big goals, about people – yet instead, bean counters worry about small things, about policy enhancements, about control.
The most important question about Curiosity is “what now?” and today nobody can answer that. The US has had a man-made working rover on Mars for 15 years and can land over a metric ton as of recently – we can seriously start thinking about putting habitats now on Mars. There are many major challenges remaining, but it is ambitious and tough, visionary and hugely impactful. Among other things, such a project could help motivate millions of people to pursue science and engineering as careers, something we so dearly need to repower our economy and build out the US innovation infrastructure.
Needless to say, I would make a condition to fire a lot of NASA so-called managers, bureaucrats and bean counters before making such massive investments. They have slowed the agency down and have made some parts of NASA look nasty and full of ugly bureaucracy. But, I would not fire a single one of the people who built and landed Curiosity, because it’s these people who can be at the beginning of a new era of innovation and exploration with all the challenges, failures, learning and victories that come from a great nation that challenges itself to step up to challenges.
I am not worried about my former students finding jobs elsewhere in industry. Many entrepreneurial companies would be glad to have them – I encourage them to come back to Michigan and join a cool startup. But, I worry about the demise of one of the proudest parts of the US government, NASA, and the fact that we cannot answer today, after one of the best and proudest accomplishments of US space flight “What now?”
Note: This is to the many amazing UM alumni who were personally involved in making MSL a success – you guys rock! I am so proud of each and every one of you! Also, Curiosity includes electronics systems built by the engineers of the Space Physics Research Laboratory of the University of Michigan. Congrats guys – you did it again!