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The “Right Stuff” for Innovative Engineering Teams

Brian Muirhead

Brian Muirhead

No matter what the industry, getting there first with an idea that captivates the customer is the Holy Grail of engineering. But the chances for success in that quest typically hinge on building an engineering team with the imagination to conceive the next bright idea and the grit to make it a reality.

Brian Muirhead, chief engineer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, knows well the challenges of grooming teams for risk-filled projects no one has attempted. In his 37 years with JPL, he has led many high-profile missions, including responsibility for the design, development and test of the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft that landed successfully on Mars in 2012. He also served as chief engineer of the Mars Science Laboratory and now spearheads a mission to capture and redirect an asteroid. Muirhead discussed his views on building innovative engineering teams with IEEE GlobalSpec contributing editor Larry Maloney.

Maloney: How important is engineering innovation to JPL’s missions?

Muirhead: It’s essential because virtually everything we do is the first of its kind, whether it’s an entire spacecraft or the science instrumentation vital to our missions. A good example is a new spacecraft scheduled to launch in late January to measure the earth’s soil moisture. Called the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, the spacecraft is designed as an earth orbiter with an innovative 6-meter scanning antenna that actually rotates at 14 rpm. The antenna design is a major plus in boosting ground coverage so that we can map the entire earth for soil moisture content in about eight days.

Maloney: Can you describe some other current JPL projects where innovative engineering solutions are especially critical?

Muirhead: Certainly the Mars Science Laboratory, which successfully landed on Mars in August 2012, required many innovations. The mission’s rover, Curiosity, features a driving system and a 2-meter robotic arm that carries out 10 different science investigations of the Mars atmosphere and surface, including drilling. Curiosity was a very tough robotic challenge, and it continues to send us back important data and images from Mars.

Also very interesting from an innovation standpoint is the low-density supersonic decelerator (LDSD, video here), a technology demonstration project to test landing systems for deploying equipment and possibly even crew on Mars. Building on technologies pioneered by Mars Pathfinder, LDSD includes a rocket-powered, saucer-shaped decelerator as well as an inflatable device and a mammoth supersonic parachute. The systems will be tested at altitudes of 120,000 feet or higher to simulate conditions of the Mars atmosphere. Until now, the entry, descent and landing (EDL) systems that we’ve used could deliver payloads of about a ton. By the time we get to manned missions on Mars, we’ll need EDL systems capable of landing more than 40 tons.

Maloney: What are the most important considerations in building an innovative engineering team?

Muirhead: First, there’s talent. You need to know where to find smart people and then train them in the particular needs of your project. You also need to establish an environment where team members trust each other, as well as their managers. Trust involves open communication, which is very important as a project goes through the inevitable ups and downs.

Another thing I look for is a personal commitment from everyone to doing the job well. But people also need to go beyond their particular specialty and think about the project’s overall engineering system. Team members should be constantly asking themselves and their management these questions: “Am I doing the right job?” and “Is this the best way to do it?”

Maloney: Obviously, managers of innovative teams need to be strong systems engineers.

Muirhead: That’s right, but the best systems engineers typically come from a background that includes deep technical knowledge and development experience in one or more engineering specialties. They are people who have built or delivered something or operated a mission, so they’ve had their judgment challenged and tested. Project managers also need to possess good people skills, as well as an appetite for risk. They have to be willing to do things differently if the conditions dictate.

Project managers are faced with all sorts of constraints, and that’s where innovation comes in, both in what technologies are used and how a project is managed. For instance, taking creative risks often involves a willingness to adopt hardware or software solutions that haven’t been tried before. Or it can mean changing the way a manager does project reviews or the mix of analysis and testing used to fit within cost and schedule constraints.

Maloney: Does a project manager need to be a proven innovator, or is it enough to assemble a team of innovators?

Muirhead: If a project manager is handed an engineering challenge that truly requires innovative solutions, then innovation needs to be in the DNA of that manager.

In the old days at NASA, the approach was conservative. We tried never to fly new technology on a mission; everything had to be proven before we could fly it. Mars Pathfinder changed that paradigm. We invented or reinvented 25 technologies, such as the airbags and Viking parachute used in the landing. We were also the first to fly a commercial R-6000 processor in deep space, the same CPU that was used in the IBM R6000 workstation.

Maloney: How does a manager ensure that innovation remains a priority when costs are being closely scrutinized?

Muirhead: In many projects, managers are simultaneously facing tough technical challenges, tight schedules and limited budgets. The art of dealing with these constraints starts right up front in systems engineering in what I call the architecting process. You’ve got to architect a system that takes all factors, not just the engineering ones, into account, including the constraints, the team that will be doing the work and the expectations of all the stakeholders. You need an architecture that balances all these elements yet provides sufficient engineering margins to achieve success.

Sometimes people fall in love with an initial design without fully taking into account all the factors. That’s when you can get into trouble. If you have architected the system right from the beginning, you have a much better chance of making it to the finish line on budget and on schedule.

Maloney: So the architecture involves more than just a hardware design?

Muirhead: It’s the whole project implementation. To give you a NASA example, I’m now leading the conceptual development of the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM, video here), which features a spacecraft equipped with robotics to capture and redirect an asteroid to a lunar orbit. Later on—in the mid 2020s—astronauts aboard NASA's Orion spacecraft would explore the asteroid. The mission would use solar electric propulsion at a very high power level, 50-kilowatt class or higher, which would then serve as a key enabling technology for future human exploration missions to Mars.

It’s a project that demands a great deal of innovation under tight cost constraints. In terms of project architecture, we’re weighing whether we want to capture an entire 10-meter-class asteroid, or a 1-3-meter boulder from a larger asteroid. My job to this point has been to lead the architecting of the system, including the technical capabilities, mission design and implementation approach, so that we can have high confidence of success if NASA decides to move forward and Congress supports the mission.

Maloney: These days, companies and organizations are partnering much more with outside entities. How do you sustain an atmosphere of creativity in such an environment?

Muirhead: Once again, it starts with that upfront architecture. You need to be confident at the very outset that your partners can perform their part of the job. And there needs to be clean interfaces between the partners so that everyone understands what technologies and skills they need and what they must deliver and when. That’s where trust and good communications among leaders come in.

The ARRM mission will involve several NASA centers, and we’ve architected the system so that different modules can be cleanly delivered and tested by different organizations. The use of solar electric propulsion technology provides us more flexibility in the total mass we can carry, which gives the different parties more design freedom. The mission could also involve participation by corporate and university partners. Some companies, for instance, are using solar-electric propulsion technology for satellite station keeping, and some are developing all-electric satellites that can fly from low-earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit without any chemical propellants at all.

Maloney: NASA for decades dominated space exploration. Now, commercial players are getting involved, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Foreign organizations also are making headlines, as seen in the European Space Agency’s recent success in delivering a small lander to the surface of a comet. In this more competitive climate, how does NASA enhance its own culture of excellence and innovation?

Muirhead: There’s certainly an important role for the commercial sector, such as the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences cargo missions to the International Space Station. It still remains to be seen, however, whether private companies can establish sustainable capabilities for launching crewed missions.

Competition is always good, and NASA fosters it on many of its space science missions, with corporate, university and NASA centers teaming up for very innovative results under tight cost caps. Anything that can reduce our cost to get to space is good, whether it be use of commercial rockets, computer systems or instrumentation. That trend helps free NASA to tackle new challenges that no one has attempted before.

At JPL, that means more freedom to focus on developing the tools and engineering systems skills needed for the exploration of deep space. JPL has a great environment in which engineers can get experience in different tasks on multiple missions in a relatively short time. That’s how you grow great systems engineers, and it is what enables us to design, develop, test and operate machines that have to work under the harsh conditions of space. That type of end-to-end experience is JPL’s greatest strength.

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