Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer

I remember thinking to myself, “The people at NASA have always seemed superhuman. When you look at successful people, you don’t always see what it took for them to get there. You see outcomes. There was very likelylots of doubt, failure, and terror getting there! 🙂


“7 minutes of terror”: the time between the lander entering the martian atmosphere and when it lands when it’s stops communicating with earth altogether and you hope it makes it but so many things can go wrong

A powerful question: Has life ever appeared anywhere else in the universe? Mission statements can bring people together.

Chapter 2

Constraints can help us get creative: Pathfinder was an earlier mars mission that had some interesting ones:

  • Small
  • Planned basic research
  • New launch / landing platform (Combination of heat shields, parachutes, airbags.)
  • Relatively small budget

A mistake where a program was getting values in units it wasn’t expecting caused total mission failure (When you’re doing something for the first time expect some things will go wrong. Build contingencies and backup plans where the investment in time, money, and effort is justified …)

Chapter 3

A visual aid to quickly capture ideas for landing the rover:

![Mars EDL Possibilities]({{ site.url }}/images/mars-edl-possibilities.png)

There was a lot of time between project kickoff and concensus where people just weren’t ready to make a decision. Lots of people involved

Multiple project teams were thinking and pitching ideas to people who would select the best

Chapter 4

A mini meltdown from the chief engineer 🙂

Chapter 5

Mid way through the schedule, people were very worried about being able to slow the craft down. A major requirement / risk to the project didn’t have a solution or even the beginnings of one.

Many months of brainstorming and exploring proposals deeper. Another caveat for them is that no matter how much investigation you do you can never be 100% sure because you can’t actually test on Mars … 🙂

Chapter 6

Engineers != good communicators often. This limits ability to build concensus and ultimately create change. Important to be able to convince others your idea is workable. Presentations often go down in flames because of style not content …

There is probably a good tension between engineering and the business. How much a business is willing to invest in a solution and how much risk it’s willing to take on due to lack of investment in ideal solution. Note ideal solution is usually untested and thus fiction anyways.

Lots of opposition in the face of doing something new.

Chapter 7

Within the broader NASA org, the team was considered overconfident and cocky. Past success. Humility was required or they’d have trouble having an impact.

Chapter 9

Getting other countries to contribute by way of providing certain instruments allowed the team to scale. Sounds like working groups: a community of passionate individuals formed around a single concern that’s often temporary in nature.

Important to work on community alignment. Listening. Empathy.

How do you get new people involved? Established players often crowd the field and aren’t always enthusiastic about working with untested, unproven parteners.

Chapter 11

Complex systems are like an enormous painting. Hundreds of artists must each get their own little corner of the canvas. It is project management’s and the systems engineer’s job to make sure that each part of the canvas is allocated to the appropriate artist. When adjacent artists have widely different perspectives or palettes, the whole painting might have to be scrapped. It is the chief engineer’s job to stand back, study the entire painting and resolve disasters in advance, which usually means working with the artists to solve the problem between them before the paint has dried.

A point is reached where Rob sits down with a trusted mentor about the impossibility of the task ahead. There just wasn’t enough time to solve all the problems they could see. He was told to find data and build a case. He couldn’t talk to management about wishes and feelings. Having somebody you can talk to and ask for advice from seems crucial.

Be careful about conveying down messages to the team. It’s likely to make them want to give up.

Chapter 13, 14

Bit if an emotional rollercoaster this was for him

Fear of failure. Physical health reprocussions. 2-3 hours a week of physical training was prescribed by Rob’s doctor.

Chapter 16 “Gremlins”

This is all about planned game days. Tiny faults injected into otherwise normal data the team would have to work to investigate and resolve. Super important.

Complicated, highly choreographed sequence of events that was the landing must be rehearsed

I should read this chapter again. Bloody brilliant.