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   Rob Manning

Mars Exploration (General)

I have been involved in Mars exploration at JPL pretty much continuously since 1993 when I joined the Mars Pathfinder project.

I was the first Mars Program Chief Engineer not long after the Mars program office started in 1997. I worked with a lot of engineers and scientists to figure out how to engineer a whole sequence of Mars missions in a complementary way so that each could benefit from the others.

I also worked on the (defunct) Mars Sample Return 03/05 mission in the late 1990s. I was the MSR lander manager. I learned about how tough it as to design big landers with big heavy payloads on top. Made me think that we should go back to the drawing board. Once MCO and MPL failed, I was certain that we needed to rethink it.

Mars Science Laboratory

I have been the MSL chief engineer nearly continuously since late 2007. I did a temporary stint leading the MSL fault protection team in 2010 but I came back to this role in 2011. I had been on all of the reviews prior to that and I was an early advocate of the use of a descent stage (starting in 2000) as a way to control velocity from above the rover without the use of airbags (long story there). When I arrived on MSL much of the hardware was under construction and the system test program was starting up. I was concerned that with launch less than 2 years away that there was still a fantastic amount of work ahead and that if any of our key technologies had a hiccup, we would miss the launch in 2009. Well that happened and we again learned that Murphys law should be counted on in the plan. Fortunately rather than cancel MSL, NASA and Congress allowed us go to the next Mars launch opportunity in 2011 (26 months later).

I am very grateful for the extra time. I think MSL is about 10 times more complex than MER and certainly the most complex mission we have ever undertaken at JPL. Now it is time to see if all of that monumental work by thousands of people has paid off.

While it is impossible to say in advance with absolute conviction that MSL will work perfectly, I do feel that we have scaled the mountain in our development and test program, patchwork though it is. Unfortunately it is impossible to test EDL end to end on Earth. Our first and rather important test will be on Aug 5 around 10:30 (Pacific Time).

Mars Scout

The 2007 Mars Scout is really the Phoenix lander. While still on the Mars Program office, I also worked on the Phoenix EDL system. I personally reviewed nearly all of the EDL tests results. Early on with Wayne Lee, I argued that the EDL team needed more resources to study the EDL system in more depth (especially given that we never really learned the cause of the MPL failure). Fortunately we got the resources and the team used it wisely to really study and test test test the system in gory detail.

The Phoenix team was fantastic. I was delighted to see the LMA gang finally get their chance to see their vehicle land and do great science near the north pole of Mars.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Along with others, I reviewed the design and "risks" of MRO with my colleagues at LMA in Denver. They really did an amazing job with this beautiful machine (our Mars "spy satellite") that helped revolutionize our understand of Mars diversity.

Mars Exploration Rover Mission

In late 1997 Tom Rivellini, Dave Spencer and I at JPL proposed to the 01 mission and Mars program that we look at converting the white box inside Pathfinder into a mobile rover. We knew how to land (bounce) so the next part should be to modify the lander innards to become a rover a bit larger than Sojourner and one that would not be tied to the lander base station. However, at the time it was not considered viable.

After the loss of MCO and MPL in late 1999, NASA and JPL scrambled to figure out what path the Mars program would go. It was clear that the MSR path we were on for 03/05 would not happen.

While we were still scrambling, early April 2000, my friend Mark Adler came to my office and suggested the same idea we proposed in 97 (not knowing we had done so) and asked me what I thought about getting off the ground for the June 2003 launch opportunity. Well, of course I was a fan (I was biased) so in the coming few weeks a small team of us put together a proposal which became MER.

Once given the go ahead, I became the flight system "system engineering" manager as well as the EDL lead for MER. Those three or so years was a wild ride. Wilder even than Pathfinders. I left MER about 3 months after landing to become the Mars Program Chief Engineer (again).

Mars Polar Lander

I did not work directly on MPL, but I attended reviews for much of it including EDL. I was forever amazing that the team in Denver could build both a lander and an orbiter (MCO) for about the same price as all of Mars Pathfinder (which at the cost of an high end movie, was very low budget for a Mars mission, let alone a lander and a rover). The team was really phenomenal and worked so very hard but they needed few more people to look at the design in more detail. (as we could clearly see on Phoenix which was MPLs younger sibling).

I was in the control room when we failed to see the post-landed signal. The pain of loss ripped through me and the rest of the team. It was another reminder that the difference between success and failure is sometimes very slight.

Mars Pathfinder

In 1993, Brian Muirhead, the flight system manager for Pathfinder tagged me to be his chief engineer for Mars Pathfinder. The great Bill Layman, was the chief engineer for Pathfinders amazing little rover payload called "Sojourner". Pathfinder was a thrilling little mission. I learned so much about testing and integrating complex systems as well as about Mars and about people.

Prior to Pathfinder I was mostly an electroniquer. Pathfinder introduced me to the world of entry descent and landing (EDL) and I eventually became the lead system engineer in charge of that phase of Pathfinders mission. As always it is a team effort and although I lead the design for a lot of it, much of Pathfinders EDL success came from the mechanical systems (and mechanical test program) led by the amazing Dara Sabahi as well as the analytical systems brain of Sam Thurman.

I have many stories from Mars Pathfinder, some goofy, some scary, some poignant, many just plain fun.

Mars Observer

I was a reviewer of the electronics design. This vehicle was a commercial earth satellite that was modified for deep space and Mars orbit. It turned out that it needed a lot of changes before it could launch because of the need for fault tolerance and autonomy as well as to accommodate a lot of new instruments. Unfortunately Mars Observer (MO) disappeared before arriving to Mars.

Rob Manning:
  Background Information
  Contributions to Mars Exploration
  Personal Reflections