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Black Hat: NASA JPL boss Brian Muirhead talks about Mars exploration

Encourages balancing risk with preparation
Fri Aug 02 2013, 15:15
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LAS VEGAS: THE HEAD of NASA's famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) took to the stage at Black Hat on Thursday to share the wisdom he gained over years of overseeing the agency's successful Mars exploration programme.

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

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

In doing so, Muirhead helped lead an era in which the US Space Agency has undertaken ambitious new missions while operating in shorter timeframes and with smaller budgets. That process, said Muirhead, required a management style that places a premium on creativity and precision.

Muirhead said that many of the breakthroughs in the mission came from building a staff based not on IQ, but on EQ, or emotional intelligence quotient - a combination of drive, judgement and resilience, which enables 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. 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 regimen, 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 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." µ

 

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