NASA restructures Mars management

NASA is restructuring its Mars exploration program to provide more centralized management and better oversight of Mars spacecraft missions in response to a report released Tuesday by the Mars Independent Assessment Team.

The report, led by retired Lockheed Martin Corp. executive Thomas Young, found that software problems and inexperienced project management led to the loss of the Mars Polar Lander.

Young's assessment is one of several reports released this month evaluating NASA's project management, Mars strategy and the "faster, better, cheaper" approach to designing space missions. In addition to Young's report, an internal report by a special board at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory also was released Tuesday.

The team traced the probable cause of the Mars Polar Lander failure to premature shutdown of its engines, resulting in the lander crashing into the Mars surface. This shutdown likely the result of signals generated when the lander's legs were deployed during descent. The signals would have been a false indication that the spacecraft had landed, prompting the shutdown of the lander engines, the Young report said.

As with the Mars Climate Orbiter, which also was lost, the most probable failure of the Mars Polar Lander resulted from "inadequate checks and balances that permitted an incomplete systems test and allowed a significant software design flaw to go undetected," the Young report said.

Young's report also points out that there are not enough experienced managers for the large number of projects JPL handles.

However, NASA administrator Dan Goldin was unwilling to place blame on Mars workers at JPL.

"They need not apologize to anyone," Goldin said during a speech Wednesday at JPL in Pasadena, Calif. "They did not fail alone. I, as administrator of NASA, accept responsibility. If anything, the system failed them."

Goldin said he plans to address three areas identified in the Young report: communications; training and mentoring; and oversight and review.

An office devoted to the management of future Mars missions is being formed at JPL along with another new office that will oversee the implementation of space science flight projects.

Edward Weiler, NASA associate administrator for space science, announced the cancellation of a planned Mars 2001 lander pending the approval of a new Mars "architecture" plan.

Related links:

* "NASA defends failures" [Federal Computer Week, March 20, 2000]

* Recent NASA reports: www.nasa.gov/newsinfo/publicreports.html

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