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Not as easy as it looks

21 October 2016

NASA has landed an awful lot of craft on different worlds and has had only a few failures.

The overwhelming success of the Martian rovers is perhaps the best example of how a dedicated team of experts, when given enough funding and time, can achieve what would have been just a dream, only a decade or two ago.

That the rovers Spirit and Opportunity continued to operate far beyond their designed lifetime and gave us such a huge insight into the red planet has left many folk, including myself, truly astounded.

Then, to actually deliver the massive Curiosity rover safely to the surface of Mars and have it trundle about for over four years just leaves one's jaw even closer to the floor.

Such a shame the Europeans can't seem to do the same.

Earlier this week, the European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander was due to touch down on the surface of Mars and begin doing some science.

Sadly, like so many similar non-US missions before it, the lander failed in its mission.

According to the latest reports, something went wrong and the craft jettisoned its braking parachutes too early. To compound the problem, its rocket engines, which are designed to slow the craft and guide it down to within 2m of the planet's surface, switched off just three seconds into the planned 30 second burn.

It now looks as if the Schiaparelli lander has been hit by the same curse as the ESA Beagle 2 lander which suffered a similar fate back in 2003. The Beagle 2 managed to land but for some reason failed to properly deploy all its solar arrays and never made contact with Earth.

So why is it that NASA generally gets thins so right and the ESA gets them so wrong -- at least when it comes to successfully delivering operational payloads to the surface of Mars?

Could it be that NASA are a more closely knit team, whilst anything with the word "European" in its title will always be far more disparate group that lacks an adequate level of cohesion to achieve such technologically challenging goals?

Or is it just bad luck. Someone in the universe has been flipping a coin and for the ESA it's come up tails every time.

I think there must be an awful lot to learn by comparing the ESA's projects with NASA's.

Hopefully some academic out there is carefully analysing both teams and their projects to try and identify the areas where the ESA has slipped up and where NASA has truly excelled. Information from such a study could have massive applications in management that would benefit almost every future non-trivial project to be undertaken by mankind.

My philosophy on such things (although it will doubtless be little consolation to the ESA, is that mistakes are only a total loss if you do not learn from them.

Let's hope that the ESA, and others, are spending as much effort trying to learn from what went wrong as they did in creating the project itself.

Do readers have any insight as to why the ESA may be cursed in its attempts to land a craft on the red planet?

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