Count down to basics

Count down to basics

Thomas R. Temin

File the coding snafu that felled NASA's Mars Polar Orbiter under the for-want-of-a-nail-Rome-was-lost category.

Reports indicate a single errant line of code resulted in the disappearance of the Mars orbiter [GCN, April 3, Page 6]. In all, the space agency suffered three Mars mission failures last year because of a series of management and technical errors, according to the recent findings of the Mars Program Independent Assessment Team.

Now Congress and the agency have a choice: Fix the problems or can the program. But first, of course, comes the requisite witch-hunt. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has requested that NASA give it relevant testing data. Also true to script, NASA has reshuffled management, putting a single person in charge of the Mars program.

But how will the government actually fix the program?

Few of us can grasp the complexity of launching an object into space and having it perform as instructed. But whether it's launching rockets or building an agencywide software application, certain basics apply.

Reviewing the NASA story led me to revisit the advice of author and quality consultant Philip B. Crosby. His counsel on making quality happen, online at, should be required reading for government managers.

Crosby advocates a people-centered approach to quality. All the matrices, International Standards Organization 9000 certifications and military specifications in the world won't produce the intended results if everyone isn't committed to conforming to the requirements.

Last weekend, I took my 6-year-old daughter to a windy field to fly her first kite. When we coaxed it aloft, I handed her the string and spool. My errant line of code: I failed to tell her the importance of gripping the spool tightly. Startled by the strength of the wind, she dropped the spool, and the whole apparatus zoomed off, lost forever. The look on her face gave me an inkling of how NASA folks must feel when a mission goes awry.

The agency that pulled off the thrilling Mars Pathfinder missions can do it again. But its managers must review the basics.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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