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Thomas Young
Properly applied, we endorse "faster, cheaper, better"
 real 28k

Donna Shirley, Mars Pathfinder mission
Nasa has been trying to do too much with too little
 real 28k

John Pike, Federation of American Scientists
"You need enough people in the room to get the job done"
 real 28k

The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"Nasa admits it was spread too thin"
 real 28k

The BBC's Dan Isaacs reports
"Underfunded, failure of design and poor testing procedures"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 04:25 GMT 05:25 UK
Mars failures 'down to cash'
MPL Nasa
MPL on Mars: The scene that never was
A software problem prematurely shut down braking engines on the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) and sent the craft smashing into the Red Planet at 80 km/h (50 mph), a team of independent experts has found.

Thomas Young, who was called in to investigate the failure for the US space agency Nasa, said his group was "almost certain" this is what happened to $165m craft on 3 December last year.

Young presented his team's findings at a news conference as Nasa announced it was cancelling a Mars lander mission scheduled for next year and was reassessing its entire Mars exploration programme.

The retired aerospace executive said the engine shutdown was probably caused by a spurious signal from one of the spacecraft's three landing legs. It is thought that the on-board computer interpreted this signal to mean the craft had landed and it then commanded the engines to stop.

"We're almost certain that if the lander got to this point (above the Martian surface), then this was the cause of the failure," said Young.

Inadequate funding

However, the former Nasa employee pinned the underlying cause of the failure on "inadequate funding and inadequate margins" in the planning and execution of Nasa's Mars exploration programme at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Thomas Young led the MPIAT
The Mars programme, he said, "was underfunded by at least 30%".

He questioned the way some in Nasa had interpreted the agency's core philosophy that space missions should be made "faster, cheaper and better". This did not mean taking unacceptable risks and cutting corners on such basic items as adequate testing.

"The thing that struck us about 'faster, cheaper, better' (was that) ... we found that people were interpreting this more broadly ... with risks in testing, analyses, deviating from engineering and management principles, and that's not acceptable," Young said.

The Mars Program Independent Assessment Team (MPIAT) had a wide remit. It examined both the MPL project, and the earlier Mars Climate Orbiter which burnt up in the Martian atmosphere last September after engineers mixed up their English and metric measurements. It also looked into the failure of Deep Space 2, a pair of Mars probes that were supposed to have been deployed by MPL during its descent. The report, however, gave no explanation for their loss.

Future missions

Overall, the MPIAT report detailed 80 findings and 40 lessons learned. It said Mars exploration was an important goal that should continue. It said that although significant flaws in the formulation and execution of the Mars Programme had been uncovered, all of the problems were correctable.

And it said the "faster, cheaper, better" approach, properly applied, should be continued as an effective means of guiding programme implementation.

Ed Weiler, Nasa associate director in charge of science, said the space agency would "fully respond" to the MPIAT recommendations.

He also said plans to launch a new Mars lander next year would be cancelled, although a Mars orbital mission would proceed. That mission calls for a spacecraft to map the minerals and water on the Red Planet.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Ed Stone said better management procedures were already being implemented. He said no heads would roll at JPL because of the Mars failures: "This is not about who's to blame. This is about how to ensure success. We have to put in place a system of checks and balances to ensure success."

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See also:

28 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Where now for Nasa?
22 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa rejects 'cold firing' claims
22 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa's disastrous year
06 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Mars: Mission impossible?
08 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Mars 'wake up call' for Nasa
11 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Nasa: Lost in space?
17 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa ends search for Mars probe
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