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Black Hat: NASA JPL boss Brian Muirhead shares lessons learned on Mars

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The head of NASA's famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) took to the stage Thursday to share the wisdom he has picked up over years of overseeing the agency's wildly successful Mars exploration programme.

Brian Muirhead told an audience of security professionals that his success has come from an environment that tempered big risks with relentless testing, preparation and creativity.

Serving as chief engineer at the JPL in Pasadena, Muirhead has helped to lead the teams that built, launched and landed the Sojurner, Spirit and Curiosity Mars rovers amongst numerous other missions to the red planet.

In doing so, Muirhead has helped to spearhead an era in which the US space agency has undertaken ambitious new missions while operating in shorter timeframes and on smaller budgets. That process, says Muirhead, has required a management style that places a premium on creativity and precision.

Muirhead said that many of the breakthroughs in the mission have come from building a staff based not on IQ, but on EQ- a combination of drive, judgement and resilience which will allow engineers to develop and follow through on new technologies.

“I'm looking for EQ, I'm looking for people with that drive and passion,” he explained.

Risk management also played a major role in the missions. Prior to the 1996 start of the Discovery missions, only eight of 30 Mars missions had succeeded. While that rate has improved to 15/32, venturing to the red planet remains risky.

As the missions progressed, the landings only grew riskier. The descent of the 900kg Curiosity rover consisted of a complex series of manoeuvres which were famously billed as “seven minutes of terror.”

To help temper that risk, Muirhead and his team stuck to an extensive testing regiment, ensuring that the many phases and components of the lander and rover were able to function under multiple scenarios.

“We let ourselves know, we let the management know and we let the public know that we've done everything we can do,” he said, “but there is still inherent risk in what we do.”

Muirhead himself sees management as a mixture of both maintaining a team and making their jobs easier to do, a concept he refers to as 'grease and glue.'
“Glue keeps the team together which is important, but I think more importantly its the grease, we break the barriers, we cut the red tape.”

Source: V3.co.uk
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