The late Steve Jobs of Apple was known for berating subordinates harshly and telling them they never did anything right. A recent Wired Magazine related a story about Jobs and an Apple subscription service called MobileMe, which went badly off the rails during development. According to Wired, Jobs screamed at MobileMe employees from a stage in an Apple auditorium in the wake of the debacle, chewing them out for their performance, and finished up by firing the team leader on the spot.
So it is interesting to speculate how Jobs might have run NASA’s Mars landing program, particularly because, despite the recent success of the Mars Rover, the program has had its share of setbacks. In the late 1990s, the Mars Climate Orbiter, Polar Lander, and Deep Space 2 missions all wound up as piles of rubble on the Martian surface because of technical screw-ups. After the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost over the Red Planet in 1999, NASA investigated and found problems with a software routine managing thrusters that compensated for angular momentum. It had been programmed in pounds-second instead of Newtons-second. The trajectory-modeling software that used the information consequently made a big miscalculation. The craft ended up 170 km closer to the planet than expected at the critical point of atmosphere insertion and couldn’t recover.
The Mars Polar Lander and two Deep Space 2 probes also were lost in 1999 as they entered the Martian atmosphere. Investigators traced the probable cause of the Polar Lander problem to premature shutdown of the descent engines when transient signals triggered a touchdown sensor. The failure-analysis team was never able to nail down the exact cause of the Deep Space 2 loss. But they did discover a lack of systemlevel testing that, they felt, probably contributed to the failure. For example, the probes were never impact tested when they were electrically powered, nor was the flight battery impact-tested as a unit. All in all, NASA engineers had overrelied on simulations rather than on physical testing in an effort to keep costs down and to stay on schedule.
Had someone with a Steve Jobs management style been running the Mars program in the 1990s, it’s not clear who would have been left standing to learn from mistakes. That’s one of the consequences when you fire whoever led the team that blew it. Remaining team members won’t want to stick around to find out what happens the next time something hits the fan.
The probable outcome: A new set of people who also can’t do anything right. They’ll likely create more piles of rubble on Mars via mistakes old hands could have warned them about. But all the old hands have scattered to the winds.
There is, in fact, a point in NASA’s history that illustrates what can happen when there is no one around who remembers previous lessons learned: Chroniclers of the 1960s-era moon-shot program say there were serious problems with early Apollo hardware because Apollo engineers took a “not invented here” attitude toward achievements in the earlier Gemini program. Historians blame this kind of culture at least partially for the launch-pad fire that killed three astronauts in 1967.
— Leland Teschler, Editor