WASH - Update...Mars Polar Lander Doomed by Software, Money Woes

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Title: Mars Polar Lander Doomed by Software, Money Woes

Story Filed: Tuesday, March 28, 2000 5:25 PM EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A software glitch, a premature engine shutdown and problems with NASA money and management doomed the Mars Polar Lander to crash into the Red Planet last December, independent experts reported on Tuesday.

The space probe was supposed to set down gently on the martian surface, landing on its three legs; instead, when its legs extended during descent, a false signal was generated that made the craft ``think'' it had already landed, and its engines automatically shut off.

With little to slow it down, it slammed fatally into Mars at about 50 miles (80 km) an hour, according to the report authored by Thomas Young, a former NASA official with long experience in the space industry.

The so-called Young Report, released at a briefing at NASA headquarters, also took aim at a core philosophy at the U.S. space agency, the notion that space missions be made ``faster, cheaper and better,'' or FCB for short. This was a departure from the 1980s-vintage large-scale programs that took a decade or more to execute.

A central tenet of NASA chief Daniel Goldin, the FCB principle was seen as pushing workers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to take unacceptable risks and cut corners on such basic items as adequate testing.

``The thing that struck us about 'faster, cheaper, better' (was that) ... we found that people were interpreting this more broadly ... with risks in testing, analyses, deviating from engineering and management principles, and that's not acceptable,'' Young said.

The Mars Polar Lander project, and the earlier Mars Climate Orbiter, which failed last September due to an embarrassing misunderstanding over English and metric measurements, were examined along with Deep Space 2, a pair of Mars probes that also failed and for which an immediate cause was not named.


The Mars projects were seen as being under-funded by some 30 percent, and aside from money problems, there were not enough people to do the work and not enough communication between the key NASA center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and NASA headquarters when problems loomed.

There was also inadequate communication between the laboratory and Lockheed-Martin, the primary contractor for the Mars probes.

``We believe the flaws to be serious and to require significant corrective action,'' Young told reporters. However, he said the exploration of Mars was an important goal and indicated that the problems could be corrected.

Ed Weiler, NASA's associate director for space science, said one part of the solution was to put all the Mars projects under one official, the newly named Mars program director, Scott Hubbard, currently at NASA's Ames Research Center in San Jose, California.

Weiler also said NASA would keep money at headquarters for use when risky projects run into problems, instead of disbursing all the money for the project.

But he stressed that while some projects will be canceled -- a scheduled 2001 landing, for one example -- the long-term goal to look for evidence of life on Mars will continue.

``The goal is to follow the water,'' Weiler said, since water is seen as a prerequisite for life. ``You must know where the water is or was ... if it turns out the water all went underground, eventually we'll have to carry drills to Mars ...

``That's not going to be a five- or six-year program, that's going to be a decade-long program,'' he said.

The Young Report brought a quick response from the U.S. Senate's panel on science, technology and space, which requested documents of the testing of the Mars Polar Lander.

``My initial review 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, an Arizona Republican who recently returned to the Senate from his unsuccessful bid for his party's presidential nomination.

``This report is an embarrassment to the agency ... I believe it's important that this committee exercises more rigorous oversight of NASA from this point forward,'' McCain said in a statement.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Ed Stone said he was creating two new offices at JPL, the Space Science Flight Directorate and the Mars Program Office, to offer mentoring to project directors and their staffs.

He said no heads would roll at Pasadena because of the Mars failures: ``This is not about who's to blame. This is about how to ensure success. We have to put in place a system of checks and balances to ensure success,''

Copyright ) 2000 Reuters Limited.



-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 28, 2000

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