Mars Program Assessment Report Outlines Route to Success

Press Release From: NASA HQ
Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Peggy Wilhide
Headquarters, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/358-1898)

RELEASE: 00-46

An in-depth review of NASA's Mars exploration program, released today, found significant flaws in formulation and execution led to the failures of recent missions, and provides recommendations for future exploration of Mars.

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin appointed Thomas Young, a seasoned space-industry executive, to independently assess current and future Mars programs. The Mars Program Independent Assessment Team (MPIAT) started work on January 7, 2000, and delivered its final report to the Agency in mid- March.

"I congratulate Tom Young and his team for a superb report," Goldin said today. "They have rigorously scrutinized both successful and unsuccessful missions, shining a searchlight into every corner of the incredibly complex endeavor of deep space exploration. He and his team have delivered an extraordinary report and I thank them on behalf of NASA and the American people."

"Speaking for the team, I would like to express my appreciation for the spirit of cooperation that we enjoyed at NASA Headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at Lockheed Martin," Young said. "The managers, scientists and engineers we spoke with were candid and frank in their presentations and in their answers to our questions. Everyone worked toward the same goal: finding ways to make the Mars program successful.

"One of the things we kept in mind during the course of our review is that in the conduct of space missions, you get only one strike, not three. Even if thousands of functions are carried out flawlessly, just one mistake can be catastrophic to a mission," Young said. "Our review confirmed that mistakes can be prevented by applying experienced oversight, sufficient testing, and independent analysis."

The team's charter was to review and analyze successes and failures of recent missions to determine why some succeeded and some failed; examine the relationship between and among NASA Headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the California Institute of Technology and industry partners; assess the involvement of scientists; identify lessons learned from successes and failures; review the Mars Surveyor Program to assure lessons learned are utilized; oversee Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 failure reviews; and evaluate the risk management process.

The report concluded the most probable cause of the failure was the generation of spurious signals when the lander legs were deployed during descent. The spurious signals gave a false indication that the spacecraft had landed, resulting in a premature shutdown of the engines and the destruction of the lander when it crashed on Mars.

Without any entry, descent and landing telemetry data, there is no way to know whether the lander reached the terminal descent propulsion phase. If it did reach this phase, it is almost certain that premature engine shutdown occurred, the report concluded.

NASA's Office of Space Science will develop an integrated strategic response to the findings and recommendations of the report. NASA Chief Engineer W. Brian Keegan also will coordinate an integrated Agency response to the recent reviews of NASA program management practices.

In addition, today, Dr. Edward Weiler, the Associate Administrator for Space Science, announced the cancellation of the planned Mars 2001 lander awaiting his approval of a new overall Mars "architecture" plan. Weiler also will make management changes in the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters and work with the California Institute of Technology to institute effective change at JPL, clearly articulating lines of authority, clarifying roles and improving communication between all organizations involved. In that regard, Weiler today appointed Scott Hubbard as the Mars Program Director at NASA Headquarters. Hubbard is now Associate Director for Astrobiology and Space Programs, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.

The MPIAT report findings included:

  • Mars exploration is an important national goal that should continue.
  • Deep space exploration is inherently challenging, but the risks are manageable and acceptable.
  • NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and U.S. industry have the unique capabilities required to conduct successful planetary and deep space missions.
  • NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" approach, properly applied, should be continued as an effective means of guiding program implementation.
  • There were significant flaws in the formulation and execution of the Mars program, but all of the problems uncovered are correctable in a timely manner to allow a comprehensive Mars exploration program to continue successfully.

The MPIAT report found common characteristics among both successful and unsuccessful missions:

  • Experienced project management or mentoring is essential.
  • Project management must be responsible and accountable for all aspects of mission success.
  • Unique constraints of deep space missions demand adequate margins.
  • Appropriate application of institutional expertise is critical for mission success.
  • A thorough test and verification program is essential for mission success.
  • Effective risk identification and management are critical to assure successful missions.
  • Institutional management must be accountable for policies and procedures that assure a high level of success.
  • Institutional management must assure project implementation consistent with required policies and procedures.
  • Telemetry coverage of critical events is necessary for analysis and ability to incorporate information in follow-on projects.
  • If not ready, do not launch.

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