Black Hat 2013: Keynote – Brian Muirhead from JPL
Just got out of an awesome second day (August 1st) keynote by Brian Muirhead who is Chief Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs and was responsible for the design, development, test and launch of the Mars Pathfinder and Curiosity which landed in August 5th last year.
The talk tended toward being about leadership more than aerospace engineering. He chatted about how missions used to be multi-billion dollar missions and they had to land on Mars with a budget of under $200 million dollars and the transition to that culture of much lower cost missions.
A large part of their success was because they had a great team and they had trust between the team members. The managers trusted the team and the team trusted the managers.
Quote: “Constraints drive innovation.”
He described the most valuable people as those who have ownership of whatever they’re doing but also think like systems people – in other words they know where their area of responsibility fits into the larger organization.
He described trust as being particularly important when you have a diverse organization.
On of the coolest parts was when he described the “seven minutes of terror” as Curiosity touched down last year and how they wouldn’t know the rover had crashed for a full 7 minutes after it had occurred. Of course it touched down successfully and he had a tear in his eye as he related the story.
Their benchmark for success with Curiosity was to get their first photo on the front page of either the NY Times or the LA Times. Turns out they were on the front page of just about every newspaper on the planet. He used this to illustrate how important it is to celebrate success with the team.
One of NASA’s next missions is to capture a 1000 ton asteroid and tow it into a Moon orbit so that astronauts can go and visit it.
I thought one of the most interesting things about Brian’s talk was that he seemed to indicate during question time that one of the biggest constraints with what they do is budget and that Congress controls their budget – and in the current climate it’s very hard to get anything approved. I’m particularly excited about what SpaceX is doing and I’d like to see more private sector involvement in space exploration because I think the private sector does naturally more efficiently. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the Brian Muirheads of this world migration gradually over to the private sector where budget is less of an issue and efficiency is key.