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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  1. -Nate says

    Thank you Sharon ;
    As a child of the 1960’s during ” The Space Race ” with all it’s wonderments , achievements and a few failures , I understand how nice it was to be part of the JPL Team , they were also very lucky to have you on board . -Nate

  2. Ryder says

    Science and engineering teams are meritocracies. The corporations that delivered Curiosity to Mars are meritocracies.

    It is the meritocracy… rewards for performance, that are the foundation for all that comes after. In the real world, there are wins, and there are losses.

    People that are used to this, are the people you want working on the tough jobs where success means everything.

    People that depend on the equality of outcomes, enforced from the outside (like the Obama mandate to enforce equal racial quotas for school discipline), are ill suited for the real world of wins and losses.

    But in the meritocracies, you don’t get to be on the team because you are black. You don’t get to be on the team because you are a man. You don’t get to be on the team because you are gay. You get to be on the team, because you know your stuff. Failure awaits any other approach.

    Too bad we don’t learn this simple lesson when it comes to other important things, like teaching.

    California just fired its most recent “Teacher of the Year” because she had not achieved enough seniority. Too bad the students have to suffer with teachers that are older, better paid, and less capable and dedicated, that the Teacher of the Year.

    Perhaps it’s time for meritocracies in schools. If teachers expect their students to endure scrutiny of their performance, it seems hypocritical that teacher want to escape the same. And after all, aren’t the children important enough to warrant instruction from the best?

    Apparently not.

    Congrats to the engineers and scientists behind Curiosity… the best of the best.

  3. wwheaton says

    We are individually such tiny, feeble, frustrated, flawed creatures! We may stand struck dumb with awe at the greatness we witness and see all around us, past. present, and future, in Seas, Earth, and stars. Yet working, talking, understanding, together, we partake of the great things we dream of, and claim them for our own.

    I was also at JPL, a scientist, for many years, and it is a holy place to me, a temple to all we can be and do. My deep thanks to all at NASA and JPL who labor and dream to make these things possible, and remind us to remember the stars.

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