Charles Whetsel is the chief engineer of the Mars Program.
Thirty missions to Mars
have been mounted by the space agencies of the U.S., Japan, and the
former Soviet Union. Of the U.S. missions, 10 out of 15, or two-thirds,
have succeeded. Only one of 16 Soviet missions succeeded, and the
lone Japanese spacecraft is currently delayed in arrival at Mars due
to propulsion problems.
Charles Whetsel, now chief engineer of the Mars Exploration
Program, points to the single most instructive lesson of his
engineering career. He was two years into his first job out of
college. On Aug. 21, 1993, as usual, he showed up for his 6 o'clock,
Saturday night shift on the "systems" console for the Mars
Observer mission. Only the spacecraft didn't. It disappeared as its
propellant tanks were being pressurized in preparation for an
engine firing that was to have placed the spacecraft into orbit around
Mars. An investigation later determined that warm fuel had condensed
in a cold part of the propellant lines too close to the liquid oxidizer,
sparking an explosion.
"I'd never even thought about it, that I could come in
tomorrow and everything I just invested the last two years in
disappears in the blink of an eye," says Whetsel, now 34.
"That was my big wake up. I was totally incredulous. Your
world changes overnight.
"It affects you on a personal level and it affects everyone you
work with. It's equivalent to finding out your company has gone
bankrupt or something like that. But it's a little more personal than
that. That whole process of losing it, then trying to get it back then
working through the whole failure investigation trying to understand
what went wrong. We were all working together with the
external failure investigation board
on that because we wanted to understand what happened."
As graduates of what Whetsel calls "the school of hard
knocks," he and his colleagues, veterans of a failed mission and
the detailed engineering detective work that followed, became even
more valuable contributors to JPL's space exploration enterprise.
Former Soviet space engineer V.G. Perminov, who led design work
for the U.S.S.R.'s Mars spacecraft program, wrote a publication
called "The Difficult Road to Mars," in which he recounts
that country's string of misadventures to the red planet. He points to
a Russian proverb to help explain the value of lessons learned from
failure: "One beaten person is worth two unbeaten ones."
Whetsel agrees. With a great deal of experience built up through
his involvement in earlier missions, now oversees engineering concerns
for all Mars missions. "Once you've lost one, it colors the way
you look at things. You really push a little harder, you worry a