Failure to communicate? A tale about MSL…


“What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.” While we all may not be sure about the origin of this quote, it rings a bell with pretty much everybody. In the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, a prison warden says this to Luke as he whops him for, um, noncompliance.

Failure to communicate causes problems at NASA all too often. (While, as a communication specialist, I’m biased, I’ll assert that most problems – whether they be spacecraft screw-ups, poisoned relationships, or political conflicts – are a result of this same sort of failure.) One such problem was recently discussed by a NASA advisory group.

At a December meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Planetary Protection Subcommittee, a contractor who works with NASA’s planetary protection officer reported on “planetary protection lessons learned” on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, during the period leading up to launch. His report described “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in this case toward the goal of preserving the good, correcting the bad, and eliminating the ugly.

Planetary protection is the practice of preventing the contamination of extraterrestrial environments by terrestrial biology and the contamination of Earth by extraterrestrial biology (should it exist) in the course of space exploration. Sounds simple, yes? It’s not….

Compliance with NASA’s planetary protection policy is mandatory, as it fulfills requirements of international law (specifically, Article IX of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty). Well before its original 2009 launch date, NASA’s planetary protection officer established planetary protection requirements for the MSL mission, as follows, based on a mission description provided by mission managers:

As requested, the MSL mission is hereby assigned as Category IVc in accordance with NPR 8020.12C, with the following options for implementation (assuming an RPS [radioactive power system] is incorporated into the final design for the landed portion of the mission):

Prepare the landing system to meet Viking post-sterilization cleanliness requirements (controlled cleaning and assembly as noted below, followed by a system-level dry heat microbial             reduction step in accordance with NPR 8020.12C), with control of recontamination through launch and delivery to Mars:           

Under this option no restrictions on landing sites would be imposed on the mission by my office. 

Under NASA planetary protection policy, a Category IVc mission is a Mars lander or probe that will be exploring “Martian Special Regions, even if [it does] not include life detection experiments. Martian Special Regions include those within which terrestrial organisms are likely to replicate and those potentially harboring extant life.”

The Planetary Protection Officer’s decision on the MSL mission included the following details:

The mission will be limited to landing sites not known to have extant water or water-ice within 1 m of the surface…. In addition, later access to martian special regions (as defined by NPR 8020.12C) will be permitted only by vertical mobility, through the use of sterilized sampling hardware, as detailed above.  No horizontal access through mobility by an unsterilized rover will be allowed:

Proposed landing sites will be reviewed by my office for compliance with this requirement pre-launch, and prior to the preparation and presentation of landing site options to the Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator.

The “good” lesson learned is that MSL was the cleanest spacecraft to land on another planet since the twin Viking Mars landers in 1976 – “testament to a job well done by the JPL Planetary Protection (PP) team and the engineers, scientists, and technicians throughout the long and involved ATLO [assembly, test, and launch] operations at JPL, Denver, and KSC.” More good news: the MSL planetary protection team “functioned well…were dedicated to the effort, and…helped establish a healthy culture of responsible behavior among ATLO personnel relative to hardware cleanliness.”

The bad news? The MSL planetary protection team, at JPL and at HQ, was short-staffed due to budget limits, and consequently “some critical details went unchecked” – that is, some changes to spacecraft hardware apparently deemed insignificant by mission managers and that the planetary protection team, once informed of the changes, deemed significant.

The ugly? “While staffing issues contributed to the problem, the main cause of it was the lack of effective communication among the program and project management, engineers, contamination control personnel, and the project PP team.” The lesson here? “Staffing of a Category IV project’s PP team must be better scrutinized.  The team must include enough members to account for both planned activities and schedules and contingencies.  The latter tend to be the rule more than the exception.  To ensure effective communications with other project teams and management, a member of the team should be assigned the responsibility to participate daily in all related meetings, and to maintain regular liaison with the contamination control team and the cognizant engineers.”

To make a long and complicated story short, just a few months before its November 2011 launch date the MSL spacecraft was not, in the judgment of NASA’s planetary protection officer (PPO), compliant with its Category IVc requirements. (See this news report for more details about MSL’s planetary protection “slip-up.”) Theoretically, the PPO can request the delay of a launch due to noncompliance with NASA’s mandatory planetary protection policy. This option has never been exercised (as yet).

MSL’s planetary protection dilemma was resolved this way: when the PPO designated the MSL mission Category IVc, the mission team had not yet selected a final landing site from a group of four possible sites. MSL’s chosen landing site, Gale Crater, turned out to be the least problematic with regard to planetary protection – that is, it was not deemed a “Martian Special Region” – so the PPO downgraded MSL from Category IVc to Category IVa (lander/probe to a site on Mars with minimal potential for the presence of water ice within a meter of the surface of the landing site).

One consequence of this re-categorization is “the integrity of the rover science… In particular, the…potential discovery of organics will be made more difficult to defend adequately given the lack of effective sterilization and recontamination prevention,” the Subcommittee was told.

Bottom-line lesson learned in this case: “ensure more effective and frequent communication.”

From my perspective, on the outside looking in, it appears that the planetary protection dilemma that arose so close to MSL’s launch was primarily a result of the different perspectives of people and groups who had different functions and worldviews to match them: mission managers, who worry about cost and schedule; project engineers, who want their spacecraft to fly and their instruments to work; and planetary protection personnel, who want to make sure that if we ever do detect evidence of life on Mars, we can be sure it is not contamination from Earth. (Though I don’t know for sure, scientists, who want their data to be unimpeachable, did not appear to be a part of this particular ball of confusion.)

Preceding this “lessons learned” briefing, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green had told the Subcommittee that NASA’s Mars Exploration Program office (of which he is now acting director) “plans to engage PP early in [the] formulation process” for a 2020 Mars rover mission (a.k.a. MSL II). Green is in the process of initiating an MSL “lessons learned” study, to be completed by June 2013. This month’s public discussion of “planetary protection lessons learned” for the MSL mission apparently raised some hackles at NASA headquarters, since the MSL lessons-learned study has not yet begun. I myself don’t see any harm in it. At minimum, it provides useful information for the MSL lessons-learned study team. At most, it may make this team’s job easier and shorter.

That’s my five cents worth for today….


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