The Mars Czar

Orlando Figueroa doesn't own a telescope, but he dreams about the day scientists find signs of life on Mars.

The first weeks of 2004 were trying times for Orlando Figueroa. One of the twin mobile robots that landed on Mars that January wasn't functioning properly. Figueroa, the director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the time, was worried sick. After a six-month journey from Earth and only 18 days on the surface of the Red Planet, the mobile geologist named Spirit had clammed up. The remotely operated, six-wheeled rover wasn't talking to its earthbound controllers about much of anything, particularly its health.

The $800 million Mars Exploration Rover missions launched in June and July 2003 had been on a fast track-three years in the making. Figueroa was the "daddy" of Spirit and its sibling, Opportunity, having set policy and managed resources and assets for the Mars program from shortly after the project's inception.

He thought back to the ignominious mishaps with two faster and much cheaper probes at Mars in 1999, and he feared the worst.

Those missions were doomed by skimpy budgets, poor communication, and inadequate testing and oversight. Had a fatal design flaw been overlooked again? Was there some "infant mortality" problem that could render not one machine inoperative, but both? A distinguished 26-year space agency career flashed before Figueroa's eyes.

It took two days, but engineers discovered a problem in the first rover's software. Just hours before Opportu-nity's arrival on the opposite side of the planet, they found a way to communicate with Spirit and stop its computer from rebooting more than a dozen times a day. Eventually, they got the golf-cart-sized machine running again. Within a week, says Figueroa, "My two babies were healthy, taking their first steps, talking and interacting."

From Washington, Figueroa and several other program executives and scientists provided top-level direction to a team of 600 civil servants and contractors operating the rover missions from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He paid "a premium," he says, for dedication and focus, honest and direct communication, and a clear line of authority. "They knew that under my watch we were going to pay attention and penetrate as deeply as we had to . . . to avoid problems," he says.

Figueroa also prodded NASA to contract with outside Internet services to make sure its Web portal could hold up under a crush of public attention. He knows the value of educational outreach, having been inspired as a boy by a NASA program broadcast on television in his native Puerto Rico in the 1960s. The Mars Exploration Program Web site took 9 billion hits from hundreds of millions of users in the first three months of the rovers' adventure.

Figueroa was promoted in July 2004 and spent a little more than a year as associate deputy administrator for science programs. As such, he left his mark on the development of three missions to the Red Planet, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in August to take close-up pictures, scout landing sites and establish the first link in an interplanetary Internet.

He doesn't own a telescope, but he does dream about the day scientists find signs of life. "We have learned on Earth that life can be so tenacious and perseverant," he says. "We will certainly find evidence of the early stages of life, if not life itself, on Mars."

In September, Figueroa moved on to a new assignment as director of safety and mission assurance at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where his career began in 1978.

He still follows the activities of the rovers, which have trundled on for more than a year beyond their expected 90-day lifetimes. "They have shown us a new and far more interesting Mars. They have blown away every en-gineering theory we had about predicting their life, and they are still teaching us about operational efficiencies for future generations of rovers," he says.