Lessons, opportunities from NASA

Think Again: Learn how to avoid failures and innovate, according to NASA experts involved in the Space Shuttle program and the in-progress Mars Curiosity robotic mission.

By Mark T. Hoske July 9, 2013

NASA, the same organization that ignored engineering-based predictions of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, also designed, launched, and landed one of the most famous robots, the Mars Curiosity Rover. Automation and controls engineers can learn from NASA tragedies and successes, according to speakers at two June technology conferences.

Mike Mullane, retired USAF officer and NASA astronaut, provided lessons related to unheeded warnings about a shuttle failure prior to the Challenger explosion. “Normalization of deviance” led to the disaster and should not be repeated in any high-performing organization or personally, he suggested. Mullane spoke at the RSTechED conference by Rockwell Automation, in San Diego.

Doug McCuistion, director, NASA Mars Exploration Program (ret.), provided details related to launching a successful new robotic platform, the Mars Curiosity Rover. While the rover can be remote controlled, wireless signals take at least 7 minutes each way, so most decisions about landing vectors were automated. The all-new landing platform design essentially is a flying robot. McCuistion spoke at the Siemens Summit in New Orleans.

Joyful fear

Mullane noted daily indignities that accompany the boundlessly joyful, fear-for-your-life experience of space flight, including 5 hours of diaper use required for launch.

After Sputnik, the world’s first satellite launched by the Russians on Oct. 4, 1957, Mullane did a 1960 school science report. At 14 years of age, he wrote, “Someday, I also plan to participate in this great undertaking.” Homemade model rockets, essentially pipe bombs with fins [not recommended, he said], were part of his long journey to NASA-powered space flight.

Since he didn’t have genius or athletic prowess, he said he learned early about courageous self-leadership, how to be self-challenged, and a fierce tenacity in pursuit of goals. “We need to be motivating ourselves and our teams out of comfort zones.”

Mullane’s dad, a WWII aviator, was crippled with polio at 33, with six children to raise. “My parents were laser-focused on the goal.” They had to be.

NASA had a similar laser focus with the Apollo program, then lost and had to regain that vision.

Predictable surprise

The explosion of the Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, was no accident, Mullane said, but what he called a “predictable surprise,” foretold by written documents warning of pending O-ring failure on the solid-rocket boosters. Burning of the O-rings was a “criticality 1” incident, which should have grounded the fleet, Mullane said. On the second flight, fire touched and damaged the O-rings. After tests, new data, more tests, and “tinkering,” tolerance was established for something that was previously defined as intolerable, he said.

“Why do bad things happen to people and teams with stellar histories? They fall victim to normalization of deviance. Usually first time, nothing happens. Then those involved start believing they always will get away with it. Deviance becomes the norm.”

NASA, with “crushing budget and schedule pressures,” aimed to deliver 26 shuttle flights a year, as promised to Congress. NASA also missed red flags, blinded and deafened by years of successes, he said. Among words delivered from a contractor prior to the disaster: “If we do not take immediate action, then we stand in jeopardy of losing of a flight, a crew, and all the launch pad facilities. Your support in this urgent matter is requested.”

Seven perished, no escape

The Challenger STS-51 crew of seven perished after the rocket breach, 73 seconds into flight; four were Mullane’s classmates. Three prior NASA rockets had human escape systems. The shuttle had none at that point.

Mullane paused, obviously still affected by the tragedy.

“The personal success lesson is that you are vulnerable. Thirteen years separated Apollo success with Challenger disaster,” with many of the same personnel and same teams involved, from the same organization.

Tenacity, questions

Adversity can be overcome. As a weapon-system operator in the USAF, Mullane admitted to vomiting during his first 50 missions. Tenacity kept him at it. On an early flight, he did not discuss concerns with the pilot that might have avoided a near deadly crash of a multimillion-dollar jet, because he thought the very experienced pilot knew better. Questioning status quo is critical, he said. At least one post-Challenger Space Shuttle design safety modification derived from an unexpected observer’s suggestion.

“Most of us are ordinary, but the ordinary can do the extraordinary when they move the bar out and keep that laser focus,” Mullane said.

“Success isn’t a final destination; it is a life journey.”

Robotic spacecraft, rover

McCuistion, sporting a Warner Bros. Marvin the Martian tie for his presentation, described the daunting challenges that the Mars Exploration Program presented. A strategically-defined “project-by-project” approach was used to achieve one the most monumental space exploration feats of the century. The journey accomplishments included disappointments, the application of groundbreaking technologies, and collaborative processes used for the exploration program.

16 out of 40

Challenge was to land a rover about three times as large and six times the mass as the prior generation, through an atmosphere that was too thin to adequately slow the craft, and too thick to avoid heat shielding. The engineering and rocket science involved isn’t easy. Of 40 attempted Mars missions globally, only 16 have succeeded to date.

Because of the weight, 1 metric ton, the size of compact car, a new landing system was required. The craft was too heavy to bounce inside a landing ball as a prior generation of lander, parachutes alone couldn’t slow it enough, and supersonic retrorockets haven’t been invented yet to compensate for the atmosphere on Mars.

Further, decisions needed to be made autonomously in real time since dust and wind conditions vary enough to cause a crash in a lander with pre-set instructions and without embedded intelligence. A minimum 14-minute communication delay makes remote-controlled landing impossible. The robotic craft optimized trajectory and number of S-turns required up to three. It did two, McCuistion said.

7 minutes of terror

Heat shields, a parachute, and rocket-based sky-crane design allowed safe-speed lowering and landing of the rover from the descent stage. NASA and engineers and space fans held their collective breaths (so to speak) for 7 minutes of terror on Aug. 5, 2012, until they learned that the rover performed as designed and landed safely, within 250 m of the predicted location. (In 1976, the landing target for a much smaller craft was 174 x 62 mi.)

After a 254-day journey of 352 million miles, Rover Curiosity is now performing the planned roving lab experiments onboard for a design life of the next 2 years in the northern region in Gale Crater. (Curiosity is currently in Yellow Knife Bay, identified as a transition area between land and a prior river, at the base of a mountain where transitions between wind and water erosion are now clearly visible in the rock’s strata). 

On the next page: See photo that shows that water flowed on Mars; learn about the delay that avoided creating a crater with Curiosity; advocate for NASA sending humans going to Mars; link to related articles.

Rewriting textbooks

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@cfemedia.com.

Online extras

– 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.

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.