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"Mars on $300 A Day": The Mars Exploration Program

(the second of two parts)


Background From First Article

The Mars Exploration Program (MEP) is pioneering a series of "better, faster, cheaper" missions to Mars over at least the next 10 years, and possibly well into the 21st century. The overall cost of the program is somewhat over $100M per year, including launch vehicles and operations, for two launches every 26 months. (This works out to about $300K per day.)

A programmatic strategy has been developed involving selection of a science theme for the program, a long-term industrial partnership for spacecraft development, continuous infusion of new technology, and integration of the individual projects into an overall program so that synergy between projects can be maximized. A number of process improvements have been made in the areas of procurement, concurrent engineering, rapid proto-typing, and integrated payload selection, among others.


Strategic Plan

We decided to focus on the knowledge and exploration businesses as primary, with education, inspiration, and technology as secondary businesses. We then began developing a strategic plan to conduct our "businesses". The following is from a draft of this plan:

Mars Exploration (MEP)

Vision To Know Mars

MEP Mission

Explore Mars to understand it in terms of life, climate, and resources. Provide a first step in the search for life beyond Earth. Better understand the processes that shape the solar system, including the Earth. Pave the way for human exploration of Mars.

MEP Goals

  1. Pave the way for human exploration of Mars.
  2. Find evidence of past or present life (or find evidence that life never existed on Mars) to understand the potential for life elsewhere in the universe.
  3. Better understand the climate&emdash; the weather, processes, and history&emdash;in order to understand the relationship to Earth's climate change processes.
  4. Identify and learn to utilize the resources available on Mars&emdash;understand the solid planet, how it evolved, and what resources it provides for future exploration.
  5. Identify and characterize safe, interesting, and productive sites for human landings.
  6. Find and learn to use water and other resources.
  7. Characterize Mars' atmosphere, surface environment and other factors which bear on the design of human missions.
  8. Pioneer technologies for low-cost, high-return planetary exploration.

MEP Strategies

Strategies are specific actions and approaches we will take to guide the Mars Program toward our customers' goals.

Top-level program strategies are supported by specific thematic emphases in knowledge, exploration, technology, education, and inspiration.

Knowledge Strategy

Exploration Strategy

Technology Strategy

Education Strategy

Inspiration Strategy


Organizing to Conduct Our Business

MEP Organization ChartThe Mars Exploration Program Office organization has evolved over the last 20 months. Before the JPL reorganization that created the office, preprojects were in one organization, ongoing projects in another. Now the preprojects and flight projects have been brought together so that there can be maximum benefit to the new projects by close association with the old projects. There is considerable personnel sharing. At the program level, the Business Operations and Outreach offices were created to allow resource sharing between the projects. The program office staff is very small, and this has enabled our overhead to be reduced from about 15% of the project business base to under 6%, of which less than 1% is program office overhead. (The rest supports the JPL technical infrastructure.)

The Mars Pathfinder spacecraft is being developed by JPL in a subsystem mode. All Mars Surveyor spacecraft will be system contracted. Mars Global Surveyor selected Martin Marietta Astronautics in Denver as its spacecraft system contractor, and Martin Marietta also won the contract to build both Mars Surveyor 98 spacecraft. JPL and (the now) Lockheed Martin Astronautics (LMA) are thus in a long-term partnership. We are working to "mirror" our organizations to facilitate teaming and communications. Spacecraft design and operations are to be conducted at LMA, with mission design and operations being done at JPL.

Payloads for the spacecraft are procured through the Announcement of Opportunity process, from NASA Headquarters, with support from the projects in defining the allowable envelopes for accomodation of the payloads.

As personnel roll off Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor, some are going to Mars Surveyor 98 and Mars Preprojects, while others are transferring their knowledge of "better, faster, cheaper" to other programs. For example, the project manager of the first New Millenium mission was formerly the task manager for the Pathfinder Attitude and Information Management subsystem. Because of the relatively short development times for Mars projects, this training and knowledge diffusion can be efficiently done.

Code S/JPL MEP Organization ChartA recent reorganization of the NASA Science Office has resulted in some revisions in matching the JPL and NASA organizations. The organization chart to the right shows the relationships between the MEP and NASA Code S. NASA is in a process of moving more responsibility from headquarters to centers, and it is not clear what impact this will have on the organizational relationship.


Partnership with Industry

MEP Workforce Chart

The Mars Surveyor Program is built around an industry partnership for the spacecraft (both orbiters and landers). Payloads are procured through an announcement of opportunity process, except for the reflight of the Mars Observer instruments on Mars Global Surveyor and the 1998 and 2001 orbiters. Not only has the overall cost of Mars exploration declined drastically, but there has also been a major shift from in-house JPL spacecraft workforce to contractor workforce. In real-year dollars, Mars Observer (not counting launch vehicle and operations) cost about $460M, of which 54% was spent in industry (mostly through a system contract). Mars Global Surveyor, carrying six of the eight Mars Observer instruments, costs $154M, with 69% going to industry. Mars Surveyor 1998 has $187M for two missions, and 83% of the money is spent by industry. The bar chart above shows the continuing decline in overall funds for the follow-on missions, and the continued trend toward spending the lion's share of the money with industry.

The Pathfinder spacecraft is being built in subsystem mode and assembled at JPL. Lockheed Martin Astronautics (LMA) in Denver, Colorado is the contractor for both the MGS and Mars Surveyor 1998 spacecraft. These were two separate procurements, with the second being for both orbiter and lander. Under the terms of the Mars Surveyor 98 contract, LMA can be selected as the contractor for follow-on missions, provided their performance is adequate for 98. JPL and LMA are developing a teaming relationship. The JPL/LMA partnership entails a division of labor rather than oversight of the contractor by JPL. For instance, on Mars Surveyor 98 JPL personnel are located in Denver as part of the Lockheed Martin spacecraft team, where JPL skills can augment LMA skills. This enables a very small JPL project office. The LMA spacecraft team will operate the Mars Surveyor 98 spacecraft from Denver, while JPL will operate the mission.


Partnering with Scientists

Science instruments are procured through the announcement of opportunity (AO) process but are then managed by the projects. In some cases JPL is also partnered with the scientists to develop payload elements. For example, the Mars Surveyor 98 lander payload includes an integrated instrument/robot arm suite where the arm is being developed at JPL and the payload is being integrated by JPL, while the instruments are developed outside JPL. The principal investigator for the integrated payload is at a university. In these cases the proposals for the AO which involve JPL are kept carefully segregated within JPL from the Mars Exploration Program Office or any of its projects.


Some Cost-Containing Practices

The Mars exploration program is pioneering several practices required to contain costs while still conducting rewarding missions. These include the following (with a few examples):

Rapid, Goal-Based Procurement&emdash;We have reduced the lead time for spacecraft procurement by a factor of four, from 10 to 12 months for previous flight system procurements to 10 weeks for Mars Surveyor 98 and 12 weeks for MGS. New procurement strategies have been introduced for one-day turnaround for small commercial items and for drastically reducing the procurement time for electronic parts, etc.

Concurrent Engineering&emdash;Pathfinder pioneered concurrent engineering of the ground and flight systems. The new Mars Surveyor Operations Project is supporting all aspects of the project development cycle so that this concurrent engineering can continue throughout the program.

Use of commercial products&emdash;A commercial computer, the IBM (now Loral) RS6000 has been flight qualified for Pathfinder. This computer is now the basis for not only future Mars programs, but for Discovery missions, New Millenium missions, and other projects being planned well into the next century. A commercial operating system is being used by Pathfinder, and the Pathfinder flight software developed at JPL is being transferred to Lockheed Martin for use by Mars Surveyor 98. Commercial products used in the Pathfinder rover (Sojourner) include motors, radio modems, and power converters. Use of commercial electronics has required new processes for determining how to flight qualify them.

Standard Business practices and techniques&emdash;The formation of the Business Operations Office has allowed the standardization of financial and reporting formats, of scheduling tools and techniques, and the integration of an electronic library for the program.

Partnering - Providing JPL workers to LMA (See above). The possibility for long-term partnering with LMA also allows an evolutionary approach and is key to keeping the costs down for future missions. This reduces procurement costs, enables the project to be done on 26-month centers, and increases efficiency of long-term planning.

New technology infusion - Mars Global Surveyor will be the first planetary spacecraft to utilize a composite structure. Pathfinder is using the RS6000 computer, and has developed a new approach to entry, descent, and landing. Sojourner, the rover, is a technology demonstration to prove that small rovers can operate on the surface of Mars. Mars Surveyor 1998 is improving the RS6000-based computer system and introducing a robotic arm as part of the lander payload. For 2001 and beyond, technology infusion is absolutely required to reduce the mass of the spacecraft (because the launch energy requirements are higher in 2001 than in 1998) and to allow more payload percentage. LMA and JPL have developed a joint plan for utilizing technology developed with LMA internal research and development funds, for infusing New Millenium technologies such as advanced electronic packaging, and for developing technologies such as the Small Deep Space Transponder (SDST) currently being built by Motorola. The SDST is being funded by a consortium of future flight projects, including Mars, New Millenium, Discovery, and Pluto Express.

Partnering with universities for outreach&emdash;The Outreach Program has a series of small contracts with universities to develop and apply educational products in their states. They utilize graduate and undergraduate students for outreach to schools and communities, and they train teachers in understanding Mars information, how to use the Internet, and other skills. All this is done at a fraction of the cost of other methods of providing these services.


Summary and Conclusions

The Mars Exploration Program is pioneering the use of "better, faster, cheaper" techniques within a program structure to achieve a steady advance in knowledge within an extremely limited budget. We have made great strides in streamlining, partnering, improving our processes, and empowering our colleagues. However, much remains to be done. In particular, things which are still needed to protect the viability of the program include:

The two initial launches of the Mars Exploration Program this fall and winter will start a new and exciting era of planetary exploration. We plan to land on Mars on July 4, 1997, orbit Mars in September 1997, and then visit Mars roughly every 26 months for at least the next decade.

There are many risks because of the minimal funds available, and because of the need to do things never done before, on 26-month centers. These risks are being mitigated by creative new processes in management, engineering, and science. The jury is out on the eventual success of the program, but we believe that we have started well.

--Donna Shirley


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On to the next article, Teachers Prepare for Virtual Mars!