Poor testing doomed Mars missions, officials say

Poor testing doomed Mars missions, officials say

Sen. John McCain says the report 'is an embarrassment to the agency.'

NASA stands by the faster, better, cheaper approach to project development even though space agency officials acknowledge that the overzealous application of the reinventing government tenet likely doomed three recent Mars missions.

Testimony to lawmakers, as well as independent reviews point to inadequate software testing as the chief cause of the September failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the December demise of the Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 probe.

A lack of oversight and manpower led to the testing snafus, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, the General Accounting Office's Allen Li and Marshall Space Flight Center director Arthur G. Stephenson said. They testified last month at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.

NASA officials promised a top-to-bottom evaluation of the Mars program. 'We needed at least two people doing everything,' said Carl Pilcher, science director for solar system exploration at NASA. 'We all recognize now that the teams were too small.'

In late March, the agency named Scott Hubbard director of the Mars Program, putting an individual in charge of the area of exploration for the first time in NASA history, officials said.

Meanwhile, NASA is revisiting its plans for upcoming Mars programs. An orbiter mission scheduled for next year will continue, while a lander mission slated for next year has been put on hold.

Most of the reports stated that NASA simply went too far with its speedy, economical method of development, overlooking standard techniques and management principles in an effort to rush projects to the launch pad.

Agency officials generally stand by the approach, however. 'We just have to fine-tune it,' said Don Savage, NASA's public affairs officer for space science.

Li, associate director of Defense acquisition issues for GAO's National Security and Internal Affairs Division, cited concerns with NASA's efforts to downsize. Studies by GAO, NASA and independent panels 'concluded that the existing work force is stretched thin to the point where there is just one qualified person in many critical areas,' he said. 'NASA has identified 30 critical areas at Kennedy Space Center that do not have sufficient backup coverage.'

Mismanagement may have triggered the failures, according to the Report on Project Management in NASA by the Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board and a report by the Mars Program Independent Assessment Team. Former NASA official and retired Lockheed Martin Corp. executive Thomas Young led the independent assessment team.

The reports cited a number of problems in the planning, design and execution of the Mars Climate Orbiter mission but blamed its failure on a single line of trajectory code.

NASA officials have said that Lockheed Martin supplied code programmed in English units of measure rather than metric units. The errant data likely caused computational errors that either sent the $125 million craft spinning off into space or caused it to disintegrate in Mars' atmosphere.

But Young noted in his team's report that the project suffered from people problems as well. The navigation team was understaffed, did not understand the spacecraft and was inadequately trained, the report stated.

The Mars Polar Lander problem likely would have been caught in a follow-up test, Young's team reported. Tests showed that the likely culprit was false signals generated when its legs were deployed, resulting in a premature engine shutdown that sent the unit crashing to the surface of Mars.

Almost caught

Testifying last week at a House Science Committee hearing, Young said NASA found the problem immediately. But after making a correction, workers did not retest and so missed an ensuing problem, he said.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee is demanding that NASA submit to the committee testing reports on the Mars Climate Orbiter.

'My initial view of the Young report on the Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 missions confirms my belief that NASA senior management is missing in action,' said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's chairman. 'This report is an embarrassment to the agency.'

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