NASA Prankster Helped Ensure Mars Mission's Success

Susan Hall

Those high-fivin' NASA guys have plenty to cheer about. After a landing sequence dubbed “seven minutes of terror,” the automobile-sized Mars rover Curiosity settled into Gale Crater for a nearly two-year mission to expand our knowledge about the Red Planet.

As the Los Angles Times describes it:

This would be a full-fledged geochemistry lab, on wheels, able to vaporize rocks, “taste” air samples and ingest dirt, then send the results of experiments home from 154 million miles away.

It says the $2.5-billion mission involved the work of more than 5,000 people from 37 states, some of whom who had worked on it for 10 years. Chief engineer Rob Manning's job, detailed in a second Times story, included proving Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong will. He told the Times he did his darndest to sabotage the mission to ensure the team had considered all the possibilities and planned scenarios to deal with them. He took particular delight in walking on the dark side.

His stunts included losing signals, getting the rover off course and having to deal with space junk. His team didn't necessarily know he was jinxing the simulations, with some pranks described as "pretty evil." This on top of the real, unforseen issues that would arise. In a particularly stress-inducing exercise, he would create mayhem for teams when their best problem-solvers were absent, requiring those remaining to step up and deal with it. He said it's been a great team-building exercise:

You need to figure out who the core people are who can solve your problem, listen to them carefully — and then trust them.

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