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Failure IS an Option

most pathfinders are failures
it is what makes us human
by Dale M. Gray
Boise - March 28, 2001
In the months since the twin failures of the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter, NASA has profoundly changed the manner in which it applies the "Faster, Better, Cheaper" philosophy of space exploration.

The Agency has inserted additional layers of oversight into all planetary and technology demonstration missions under development. It is thought within the Agency that a little preventive medicine applied at the right time can save missions and programs in the future.

This oversight does not come without programmatic and hard dollar costs. There are some who think additional oversight is not the way to go and that it jeopardizes the very things it seeks to preserve.

So what is the proper response to the failed Mars missions?

Perhaps the answer is to better understand the frontier environment in which NASA operates. Space operations today, in many ways are like historic frontiers that pushed into the unknown wilderness. In these previous frontiers, it is well documented that failure was far more common than success.

Indeed, historically failure was pandemic human outcome. When NASA designs space flight systems, it takes into account environmental conditions such as vacuum, radiation and microgravity. Perhaps it is time that the Agency also add "unforeseen failure" as part of the operational environment of spaceflight.

In a wilderness, it is not what you know that kills you, it is what you don't know. Seemingly trivial unforeseen actions can and do trigger cascading events leading to failure.

Wilderness expeditions are by definition voyages into the unknown with little support beyond the frontier line. The survivors of successful expeditions have written many history books, but little is recorded of ventures into the unknown that disappeared.

Expeditions that were prepared with infinite care, the best of equipment, and launched with many a fine speech often vanished without a trace. Their scattered remains are then found by succeeding pioneers in the following decades or archaeologists centuries later.

To operate in a wilderness or frontier environment is to fail and fail again. Historically, 90 percent of all homesteads across the early American West failed. Individual homesteads were often sold twice before anyone could make a living off of them. Frontier railroads, mines, irrigation systems, and Dot.coms have all failed in their time with monotonous regularity.

For political reasons, NASA continues to engineer for an assumed environment of success, not failure. NASA must work in both space and in the halls of Congress where it gets its funding.

Selling failure as a means of achieving a goal would meet with little approval and less funding. NASA is not alone in this quandary. President Thomas Jefferson had to sneak behind the back of Congress to fund the Lewis and Clark expedition because he assumed that it would most likely meet with failure.

Engineering for success means adding layers of quality assurance and oversight to mission planning, development and construction. This additional oversight can easily double the cost of a mission while improving the odds of success only slightly.

Understanding every aspect of a mission while it is being put together in the safety of civilization is of little use when some unknown factor in the wilderness of space reaches out and slaps it into oblivion. No mission is ever launched as a perfect compete package. Small and seemingly trivial mistakes are a part of every mission. Each member of this pool of small mistakes could have been easily detected and corrected back in civilization, if mission planners had known where to look.

Once a mission is launched, these small imperfections interact and are magnified by wilderness exposure in unforeseen ways. There is no way to predetermine what flaw could be fatal. Short of breaking the bank, there is no way to track down and fix every mistake in complex missions.

Engineering for failure may provide a solution for the high cost of mission success. The difference can be profound, both in ultimate success rate and in cost.

Engineering for a system entering a failure environment requires three fundamental design philosophies.

  • resiliency,
  • fall-back positions
  • proactive loss analysis.
NASA excels at redundant systems and review of single-path components to assure the best, uninterrupted performance. It is part of the main philosophy of the Agency.

It is less accomplished at establishing fallback positions in case of partial failure. Classic examples can be seen in the recoveries experienced by the Galileo, NEAR Shoemaker, SOHO and Deep Space 1 missions.

Hard work and innovative solutions have provided the means of rescuing the missions. However, the recovery efforts tend to be spontaneous and arose out of leadership rather than any Agency philosophy. Missions without inspired leadership and sufficient recovery budgets may be lost unnecessarily.

NASA's greatest potential for future growth rests in proactive loss analysis. Great strides have been made in mission simulations to identify areas of risk.

However, by definition, the unforeseen cannot be simulated. In the recent past, when sudden catastrophe occurred during real missions, the mission was lost without gain. There was no new benchmark, no progress.

That would not be true of a mission that is designed for a failure environment. Early attempts to round the Horn of Africa met with failure as men and their ships sailed to the limits of their endurance and the known.

However, before it turned back, each crew built a giant cairn upon the shore to provide a benchmark for those that followed. Eventually, the series of cairns marched south down the west coast of Africa and ultimately beyond the Cape of Good Hope.

While we may not be able to build such cairns in space, we can create benchmarks of achievement even in failure.

A mission designed for failure would have in its core requirements the inclusion of sensors and telemetry links to send a detailed "message in a bottle" should the spacecraft be lost.

NASA has taken steps toward including proactive loss analysis to its missions. They have begun a program to develop a "black box" to survive catastrophic conditions and send telemetry back to Earth.

However, NASA's recent Mars missions were not designed for failure and tragically have left no benchmarks.

The tight fiscal constraints of the "Faster, Better, Cheaper", resulted in engineering compromises that left no margin for telemetry to be sent back during the atmospheric entry of the Mars Lander.

With no hard data from the Lander available, the bureaucracy naturally sought telemetry from its own environment, the bureaucratic process.

It attempted to piece together events using historical data gathered during the design, development and construction of the mission hardware and software.

As a proactive solution to future mission problems, it then imposed additional layers of oversight on already over-extended mission budgets.

In an ironic twist in the Mars Polar Lander story, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) thinks it has found the MPL intact, upright and standing right where NASA sent it.

The evidence at this point is far from conclusive, but if it is true, it will invalidate the bureaucratic telemetry that theorized that the mission failed when Lander's leg deployment triggered a false shutdown.

It is hoped that NASA will follow Jefferson's lead in understanding that in the wilderness/frontier environment every mission is expendable. Bureaucratic telemetry builds only on manager's fears and imagined monsters in the deep.

Yet, a perfectly designed mission with every contingency planned has almost the same chance of succeeding in the wilderness as a quickly assembled system built on established data.

Indeed, it has a far less chance of ultimate success than a series of small expendable missions building up toward a goal. The incremental movement from unknown to known is the surest way to map a successful route into a wilderness.

In the gold rush days of California it was no sin to fail and fail again. You were only judged a failure if you were too proud to pick up the broken pieces and try again.

Dale M. Gray is the president of Frontier Historical Consultants. Dale can be contacted via dalegray@[email protected]
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