In the past week or so, there’s been much discussion and debate over the merits of disruption and with it, how we view and understand what it means to innovate.
There’s one organization that’s familiar with dealing with the unknown and consequently, upending our understanding of what’s possible and what’s not – NASA, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration. For almost 60 years, they’ve had to figure out how to do things that had never been done before, and challenge our assumptions of what we’re capable of achieving.
In this guest piece by author, documentary producer and director Rod Pyle, you’ll learn about the challenges NASA recently faced in trying to send new robotic rovers to explore to surface of the planet Mars. Even if you’re not a space enthusiast like myself, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the story and insights Rod shares in this piece, as it reminds us not only of what true innovation looks like, but of our ability to transform the seemingly impossible into our new reality.
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“EDL! EDL! EDL!” was the joyous cry that rang out across the central quad at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the night of August 5, 2012. NASA’s Curiosity rover had successfully landed on Mars, and shortly thereafter, the entire landing team spilled out of the control center to proudly shout the initials of Entry, Descent and Landing, thereby proclaiming their success, as the press looked on in amusement. It was a wonderful moment for the normally staid engineering team.
Landing on Mars is a huge engineering challenge. Everything seems to conspire against you… extreme speed, tricky trajectories, uncertain atmospheric density and shifting winds, lumpy gravitational fields and of course the thin air which makes slowing down in a hurry a huge challenge.
Innovation is vital to the successful completion of these unmanned missions to Mars. When it came to landing the car-sized rover on Mars in 2012, there simply was no precedent – nothing nearly that big had ever landed there.
The Viking landers of the 1970’s were only about half the weight of the new rover, and the previous rovers had arrived cocooned in airbags. But neither of those systems would be sufficient to slow this new, heavy machine to a safe landing, so another solution would be needed. And it needed to be accomplished within NASA’s newly streamlined budgets. What in their previous experience would help them to innovate a solution to this thorny problem?
The Mars Pathfinder lander of 1997 was the first return to the Martian surface in 20 years. The mission was born of NASA’s then-new initiative – “faster, better, cheaper,” an attempt to do more with less. As it turned out, you were likely to succeed at two of the three with enough work, but that third component seemed always to be a challenge.
While innovation was the name of the game, there were some ground rules:
They would not have a large rocket to send the spacecraft into orbit around Mars, they would have to aim directly for the surface, like a bullet.
They would not have two landers, one backing up the other in case of a failure, as they had in the past. They had one shot, and one only, at getting it right.
They would not be able to test the landing system in Mars-like conditions on Earth; they would just do the best they could and try to interpret the results for Martian conditions.
In short, they would simply aim the rocket at where Mars would be in a few months, launch and guide it towards that spot, and slam directly into the atmosphere at impossibly high speeds.
Their developmental budget was tiny – so tiny that some thought it an impossible goal. But to the young engineers it was simply a challenge to be bested. So they took off the lid and engaged in some blue-sky thinking. Their resulting design was, in a word, unusual, for they had decided that the best way to get to Mars safely would be to wrap the lander in beachball-shaped airbags and bounce to a landing. It was innovative and seemingly crazy.
Reactions from the old-guard at NASA ranged from amused to outraged. Many thought it could never work. But Rob Manning, the chief engineer on Pathfinder, and his small team of young, ambitious engineers managed to get a sign-off from NASA’s chief, with a chilling admonition to not fail.
To test the tiny rover, Manning personally bought a huge load of playground sand from a company a few miles from JPL and built the largest indoor sandpit in town, right next to the control center at JPL. For airbag inflation tests, he bought a couple of leaf blowers at Home Depot. It was not the usual way of doing business, but it suited the streamlined nature of the enterprise perfectly. And more importantly, it worked.
Pathfinder reached Mars on July 4, 1997, plummeting into the Martian atmosphere with the heat shield aglow. A single parachute, the subject of much concern and consternation, popped out, slowing the spacecraft further. Then, like some nightmarish B-grade horror film, the airbags inflated instantly, looking like an oversized microbial infection. Then Pathfinder separated from the rockets and slammed into Mars.
It bounced at least 15 times… they stopped counting after that. Finally, the probe rolled to a gentle stop at which point the bags deflated, and after a few checkouts, the three panels surrounding the little rover opened up like the petals of a lily. After a long night on Mars, the Sojourner rover made its way off the landing platform and into history. Their brash innovation had worked brilliantly. Two more rovers followed in 2004. Spirit and Opportunity both landed successfully using the same airbag technology as Pathfinder. Spirit lasted five years; Opportunity is still exploring.
When plans were put forth for Curiosity, the idea was to build something bigger, better and more capable than what was done before. Instead of just sniffing and looking at rocks, this machine would scoop soil and drill rocks for samples, then evaluate their makeup at a molecular level. It would also measure radiation, carry a laser-cannon along to burn bits of rock and read what they were made of from a distance. All in all it was a quantum leap in capability.
It was also a quantum leap in weight. Pathfinder’s rover had weighed in at 22 pounds. Spirit and Opportunity at almost 400. Curiosity, vastly more capable, would weigh almost exactly 2000 pounds. How would they deliver this much larger machine to Mars? Some quick calculations made the bad news clear: it was far too large, and way too delicate, to bounce to a touchdown enclosed in oversized bubble-wrap. Something new would be needed.
JPL’s innovation machine went to work.
The engineers, led by the same Rob Manning who had designed much of Pathfinder’s landing system, knew they would need to learn from the past. For at least the first phase of the landing, something similar to the devices that brought the Viking landers down would be needed. Unfortunately, much of the engineering data and expertise was long gone. But they had an old Viking landing rocket engine sitting around, an old piece of hardware which guided them to learn how to build a far less expensive one for Curiosity.
An improved and larger version of Viking’s parachute was also designed and tested. Early on it had a nasty habit of ripping during the tests, but with some refinement if was clear that it would work fine in the thin Martian atmosphere. It was another example of an evolution of previously flown systems.
The heat shield needed to be larger than those that protected the Apollo capsules on return from the moon landings. It also needed to be designed to be off-center so that Curiosity could glide-in on it, steering itself through the thin Martian air. More evolution of existing designs, but with revolutionary changes incorporated.
But it was those last few feet of the landing that were so vexing. All the listed contraptions would get Curiosity down to about 70 feet or so, but the last phase – gently and accurately setting the machine down on Martian dirt – gave the engineers fits.
Once again, the engineers were instructed to think freely and be inventive. One design made its way to the top of the stack, and when Manning saw it, he first chuckled, but upon objective evaluation thought there might be something there. It was called sky crane, and it was truly a piece of innovation from the great blue beyond.
In brief, Curiosity would plunge into the Martian atmosphere like all the other rovers had. It would glide on its heat shield, and then a parachute would pop out at supersonic speeds to slow the spacecraft further. But it was the final phase – sky crane – that was so unusual.
As the rover neared the ground, the throttleable rocket engines would fire up, slowing the rover’s decent to almost a hover. Then the rover would lower itself from the rocket stage, via four cords, to the Martian surface. Once it touched down, a signal would be sent to the rocket stage to disconnect and fly away to crash nearby, its job done.
They labored over the design… mock-ups were built and tested again and again. There were a couple thousand things that could go wrong. When asked if it was ready, one of the lead engineers said with a twinkle in his eye, “Well… I can’t think of anything that should go wrong…”
On the evening of August 5, 2012, the controllers at JPL bent over their consoles as Curiosity completed the milestones of its complicated landing sequence. At 10:31 PDT, the signal came in: Curiosity was “down and safe,”. The controllers, engineers, management, visiting NASA brass and everyone else involved with the mission were jubilant.
Once again, a daring gamble had paid off. Blue-sky thinking, about as far out-of-the-box as it gets, had worked. The most unique and technically challenging Mars landing to date had been accomplished, and flawlessly.
These missions to Mars, and many other destinations in the solar system, are enduring testaments to the power of innovation and the promise of what is to come. It’s also an example of what can be accomplished when you give your people free reign to think creatively and without constraints. Finally, this innovation is fired by the deep and abiding passion these people feel for their mission.
It all starts with a simple mandate to the people charged with inventing new ways to accomplish difficult challenges: think big, assume little, learn what you can from the past and move forward with true blue-sky thinking. And, of course, have passion for everything you do.
Following these basic but powerful principles will allow you to conquer just about any objective placed before you… including landing on Mars.
Rod Pyle is a producer, writer and director of documentary programming for The History Channel and Discovery Communications. Rod also led leadership training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for C-Suite executives. His latest book, “Innovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success” is now available on Amazon (and Amazon.ca for Canadian readers). To learn more about Rod’s work, visit his website at www.rodpylefilms.com.