Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Sloppy management blamed for Mars Climate Orbiter loss
Posted: March 14, 2000

  Mars Climate Orbiter
An artist's concept of Mars Climate Orbiter above the Red Planet. Photo: NASA/JPL
An independent review board blames the loss of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter last year on sloppy project management, a lack of agency oversight, poor communications and shortsighted engineering. To avoid similar mishaps in the future, the board called for NASA to adopt a "mission success first" approach, one in which the emphasis is clearly on the word "success."

"The 'faster, better, cheaper' paradigm has enabled NASA to respond to the national mandate to do more with less," the board wrote. "In order for the paradigm to succeed in the future, we face two key challenges: the timely development and infusion of new technology into our missions and the fostering of the Mission Success First mentality throughout the workforce, ensuring safe, cost-effective mission accomplishment."

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, who invented the agency's faster, better, cheaper mantra, said the Climate Orbiter review panel's findings showed a fourth term is needed, "and that is, doing our work smarter."

"It means picking the right people, giving them the right resources, infusing the right technology, holding the right people accountable and doing the right kind of risk management," Goldin said.

All of which came under criticism in the Climate Orbiter review released Monday.

Launched Dec. 11, 1998, the Climate Orbiter plunged too steeply into the martian atmosphere Sept. 23, 1999, and either burned up or crashed. In an initial failure report released Oct. 15, the review board blamed the navigation error on a communications foulup between NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Mars Climate Orbiter hitting the martian atmosphere. Photo: NASA/JPL

The contractor provided propulsion data for periodic orientation maneuvers in English units instead of metric units as contracted. While the orientation maneuvers were minor, they affected the spacecraft's trajectory over time.

In a strongly worded report, the review team Monday criticized NASA for exercising poor project oversight and for cutting corners in a variety of areas to save money and/or to keep the mission on schedule. Overall, the review team concluded the Climate Orbiter project team took on the job without the proper resources to ensure mission success.

"The Mars Surveyor Program agreed to significant cuts in the monetary and personnel resources available to support the Mars Climate Orbiter mission, as compared to previous projects," the panel concluded.

"More importantly, the program failed to introduce sufficient discipline in the processes used to develop, validate and operate the spacecraft, and did not adequately install a mission-success culture that would shore up the risk introduced by these cuts. These process and project leadership deficiencies introduced sufficient risk to compromise mission success to me point of mission failure."

Roles and responsibilities were not clearly spelled out. "To exacerbate this situation, the mission was understaffed, with virtually no Jet Propulsion Laboratory oversight of Lockheed Martin subsystem developments," the review concluded. "Thus, as the mission workforce was reduced and focus shifted from spacecraft development to operations, several mission critical functions - such as navigation and software validation - received insufficient management oversight."

  Mars Climate Orbiter
Mars Climate Orbiter during final pre-launch testing at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Photo: NASA/KSC

The review board found authority and accountability appeared to be "a significant issue here."

"Recurring questions in the Board's investigation included 'Who's in charge?' and 'Who is the mission manager?' The Board perceived hesitancy and wavering on the part of people attempting to answer the latter question."

In the engineering arena, the review panel concluded the Climate Orbiter project did not spend enough time studying what might go wrong during the mission and, consequently, developing contingency procedures to correct mistakes in flight. Twelve specific shortcomings were noted.

"A necessary condition for mission success in all spaceflight programs is a robust, experienced systems engineering team and well thought-out systems engineering processes," the panel wrote. "The Board saw strong evidence that the systems engineering team and the systems processes were inadequate on the Mars Climate Orbiter project."

Poor communications and teamwork across project elements also was cited, along with a lack of experience in the project's generally young members.

About the author
William Harwood has covered the U.S. space program for more than a decade. He is a consultant for CBS News and writes for The Washington Post and Space News. He maintains a space website for CBS News.

Video vault
Richard Cook, Mars Surveyor Operations Project Manager, explains the probe came in too low due to a navigation error.
  PLAY (188k QuickTime file)

Computer animation depicts the planned arrival of Mars Climate Orbiter and its aerobraking manoeuvre to reach its mapping orbit.
  PLAY (800k QuickTime file)

Download QuickTime software to view these files.

Other coverage
Metric mixup doomed Mars Climate Orbiter - A NASA inquery says a simple mistake between metric and English measurements caused MCO's failure. [Sept. 30]

Mars Climate Orbiter declared dead - NASA has abandoned efforts to contact the Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft, effectively declaring the spacecraft dead. [Sept. 24]

Mars Climate Orbiter nears arrival - Mars Climate Orbiter, the first of two spacecraft to reach Mars this year, is set to go into orbit around the Red Planet. [Sept. 22]

Climate Orbiter arrival timeline - The major events of September 23. [Sept. 22]

Mars Climate Orbiter - facts and figures about the probe. [Sept. 23]

Explore the net
Mars Climate Orbiter - official website at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Mars Color Imager (MARCI) - this camera would have taken daily global images of the Martian atmosphere and surface.

Pressure Modulator Infrared Radiometer (PMIRR) - this instrument was to have created profiles of the Martian atmosphere.

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