MSL Curiosity Mission Success: It Takes a Village

mars missionAlmost by serendipity, I found myself working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) beginning in the late 1980s.

People tend to think of scientists, engineers, and astronauts when they think of NASA. I am none of those things.

My background is in business. I’d agreed to help a friend who owned a small temp accounting agency. He’d just landed a contract with JPL largely because he low-balled it. But when the time came to implement the contract, the accounting professionals he was relying on weren’t available, so he called me.

When I got the call, I was my own boss but business was slow. Knowing this, he asked if I’d fill in at JPL until his people were available. I agreed — and unknowingly began what became a 20+ year career at JPL — or “The Lab” as it’s called by its employees.

Not long after taking the assignment, I became a key member of the Magellan Project team overseeing all financial and business aspects of the Venus-mapping mission. During my tenure, I helped to manage the business aspect of many space flight projects, including Magellan, Mars Pathfinder, Genesis, Mars Climate Orbiter, Stardust, and several others.

Big congrats go out to the team at NASA/JPL on the successful landing of the Mars Science Lander (MSL) Curiosity. This landing is a major success but getting there and landing is only part of the mission. Now the mission ops and data analysis phase begins. Best wishes to all the engineers, scientists, administrators, business managers, and others who will continue to work to make sure the rest of the mission is as successful.

It takes a village to conduct a mission. And its success or failure rests on the shoulders of the entire team. Soft skills often go unnoticed but can be the lynchpin to success as was the case with Mars Pathfinder — obviously, this is my opinion.

Working at JPL was an amazing experience! I spent a good portion of my time working with brilliant engineers and scientists — yes, rocket scientists — helping them to develop and then stick to their budgets and schedules, what we call in the business “their plans”.

I was in the room when the landing site was chosen for the Mars Pathfinder rover, helping the team to calculate the cost and keep track of their budgets.

I was at the landing site when the Genesis sample return probe crashed on the desert floor in Utah’s Dugway Proving Grounds, upon which I immediately began the work of estimating the cost of continuing the science using the damaged contents within the probe.

sharon kyleI was also a key member of two of the most devastating flight project failures — Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander.

But through it all, the high points, the low points and all points in between, I felt fortunate to have a front row seat as I participated in history in the making.

The biggest lesson I learned is that a healthy team makes a strong team. Complex missions succeed when all systems are healthy particularly the human systems — BEST OF LUCK TO MSL and the MO&DA Team

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

Posted: Sunday, 5 August 2012

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Published by the LA Progressive on August 5, 2012
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About Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle, J.D. is the Publisher of the LA Progressive which she co-founded with her husband Dick Price. Ms. Kyle is an adjunct professor of law at Peoples College in Los Angeles. She sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and is on the editorial board of the Photo courtesy Wadeva Images.