Minds on Mars

13 Feb, 2004 By: Sara Ferris

YOU UNDOUBTEDLY RECOGNIZE THE ALIEN LANDSCAPE ON THE COVER-Mars has been in the news recently as both the target of a trio of surface exploration vehicles and as the ultimate goal of a new space initiative put forth by U.S. president George Bush in mid-January.

Our Tech Trends feature covers the challenges faced by the company charged with designing and delivering the robotic arm found on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. The arm serves as the interface with the planet surface. Those challenges are pretty much the same as those faced by designers everywhere-tight deadlines, demanding specifications-but with the added pressure of proving the design in an extreme environment in front of a worldwide audience. Historically, more than half of all Mars missions have failed, the most recent example, the European Space Agency's Beagle 2, coming little more than a week before the Mars rover Spirit landed.

The Bush space initiative builds on the success of the two U.S. rovers with a call for establishing a moon base to serve as a stepping stone for an eventual human mission to Mars. In the interim, further robotic missions will explore the Martian environment and other parts of the solar system, in particular the moons of Jupiter. This plan requires development of new technologies for power generation, propulsion, and life support.

A vision is good, and can inspire great achievements, but it's just the first step. All sorts of factors can come between a "vision document" and its successful execution. Already skeptics are questioning whether the initial budget for the space plan is sufficient. Pressures to do more with less, discussed here last month, can turn the best vision or roadmap into just one more piece of paper.

Reader Steve Cena wrote to suggest that it's more accurate to say that today "90 workers are doing the work of 94 or 95, and the rest of the work is just not getting done." This leads to such situations as releasing incomplete and unchecked drawings with the hope that the toolmakers will catch any errors. Steve calls this a duct-tape mentality-come up with a solution to get by, and put off the root-cause analysis for "someone" to solve "someday." And, of course, someday never comes.

I'm wondering how many of you are in a similar situation. Perhaps more to the point, is there anyone out there not facing these issues? How do you decide what work doesn't get done? What compromises are you making? Do you agree with Steve's prediction of "a future where efficient is a euphemism for shoddy or incomplete"?
Sara Ferris

About the Author: Sara Ferris

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