Lessons, opportunities from NASA
What NASA discovered in the design and since landing has changed textbooks. Shake-and-bake, temperature, and drop tests were performed, but simulations verified the design that no testing could, since Mars conditions could not be replicated. Rover Curiosity also has proved that conditions to support life existed on Mars, since the planet once had flowing rivers and lakes, if not oceans.
In 15 years of rover and lander development, McCuistion likened NASA’s technological progress to the difference between a Ford Model T and a new F-250 Super Duty diesel pickup truck.
Achievements include advances in instrumentation miniaturization (including a laser breakdown spectrometer), new complex actuator development (with about 600 parts) to move and steer the rover and its tools, the latest computer processors, use of a 100,000 rpm pump, and compact duplicate systems.
“If we’re spending $1 billion, we wanted full redundancy,” he said. Approximately two refrigerators worth of stuff eventually was packed into the size of a microwave. The entire capsule, including instrumentation and rover, was larger than the three-person Apollo capsule.
Delay avoided making a crater
NASA leaders had to make the difficult decision to postpone launch from 2009 to 2011. The 26-month delay to the next launch window (due to Earth and Mars orbits) was deemed necessary to leave time for identified challenges.
“Had we launched as originally planned, we would have made a smoking hole,” McCuistion said.
Design and simulation software helped enable successful collaboration, with involvement from 33 U.S. states and nine other countries, resulting in many high-technology jobs.
On Mars, results have exceeded expectations. “In 5 months, we proved what we hoped to do in 2 years,” McCuistion said. In possible future missions, “We’d like to bring something back to Earth,” he said. “There are tests we can perform here that still cannot be taken there. I’m not convinced that life doesn’t still exist there, but it’ll be very hard to determine without bringing it back to laboratories on Earth.”
Fund the journey
McCuistion, with similar conviction as Mullane, said, “Exploration is more about the journey than the destination.” And while robotics can achieve amazing things, a round-trip human landing on Mars could accomplish so much more for science and engineering, McCuistion suggested, on Earth and beyond.
We need to think again about our level of funding for, commitment to, and benefits from space exploration and have a common focus of landing humans on Mars.
- Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, mhoske(at)cfemedia.com.
- This online article has more details from Mullane and McCuistion than what appeared in the print and digital edition, July 2013 at
- Below see and link to more photos and a video: New Mars Rover Curiosity is bigger, better, more efficiently designed
- See other crisis management information from NASA - Engineering inspiration: NASA's Linenger challenges us to reach
- J. Douglas McCuistion is retired from NASA and most recently led the Mars Exploration Program, Science Mission Directorate. He has held positions in Earth and Space science at NASA headquarters, the Goddard Space Flight Center, and the U.S. Navy. At headquarters, he was the director of flight programs for NASA's Earth Science Enterprise. At Goddard, he worked on the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, Geosynchronous Operations Environmental Satellite, Landsat, Nexus (a James Webb Space Telescope precursor), and as a deputy director in the information systems engineering division.
McCuistion has been recognized with the rank of Meritorious Senior Executive, and awarded two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals; two Navy Commendation Medals; and various NASA, Navy, and other agency-individual and group achievement awards. Today he is a consultant with Stinger, Ghaffarian Technologies in Greenbelt, Md. He is slated to receive NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, on July 18.
- Colonel Mike Mullane was born Sept. 10, 1945, in Wichita Falls, Texas, and spent much of his youth in Albuquerque, N.M., where he currently resides. Upon graduation from West Point in 1967, he was commissioned in the United States Air Force. As a weapons systems operator aboard RF-4C Phantom aircraft, he completed 150 combat missions in Vietnam. He holds a master’s of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and is also is a graduate of the Air Force Flight Test Engineer School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Mullane was selected as a mission specialist astronaut in 1978 in the first group of Space Shuttle Astronauts. He completed three space missions and logged 356 hours in space aboard the shuttles Discovery (STS-41D) and Atlantis (STS-27 and STS-36) before retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1990. Mullane has been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and is the recipient of many awards, including Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, and the NASA Space Flight Medal.
Since his retirement from NASA, Colonel Mullane has written an award-winning children's book, “Liftoff! An Astronaut's Dream,” and a popular space-fact book, “Do Your Ears Pop in Space?” His memoir, “Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut,” was published by Scribner in early 2006.
Colonel Mullane enjoys hiking, and on July 23, 2010, he climbed to the summit of Africa’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro. He now is a professional speaker on the topics of teamwork, leadership, and safety.
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