Mars mission director’s message to feds: Persevere

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program Caitlin Fairchild/GovExec.com

On 40 occasions, humans have attempted to send missions to Mars. Only 16 of these missions have succeeded, Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said Thursday.

Some of the attempts have missed their target entirely, McCuistion told attendees at Government Executive’s Excellence in Government conference. “Believe it or not, you can miss a planet,” he said.

But that’s no excuse for not continuing to try, McCuistion argued. Perseverance and patience are critical to the success of any of government’s missions, he said: “The key is to keep going. Make those hard decisions. Don’t be afraid of them.”

On the program to develop the Mars Curiosity rover, which recently landed successfully and began exploring the Red Planet, those hard decisions included opting in 2009 to push back the launch schedule. “There was no way to make it with the right amount of risk,” McCuistion said. The delay ended up costing NASA $500 million.

Safely landing the Curiosity vehicle, which weighs 1 metric ton, on the surface of a distant planet was a massive engineering, management and funding challenge, McCuistion said. The rover’s nuclear power system is designed to last 17 years. “I’m not sure my operations budget will last that long,” he said.

The program faced myriad challenges over the years in which Curiosity was designed, built and launched, including multiple problems with the actuators that control virtually all the rover’s movements.

Throughout that time, the team of engineers and scientists on the project “didn’t lose sight of what that final path was,” McCuistion said. “And we made it.”

When they did, he said, it was a thrilling sight to see Americans watching the landing on giant screens in New York City’s Times Square in the middle of the night, chanting, “NASA!”

“I’m not sure we can do that again,” he said.

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