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Little Room For Error In NASA’s Dawn Mission

Little Room For Error In NASA’s Dawn Mission

On March 6, 2015 the Dawn spacecraft, equipped with its payload of highly sophisticated and sensitive surface mapping and scientific instruments, slipped into orbit around the protoplanet Ceres and began its mission to explore and map the surface as well as perform scientific tests to determine the composition and evolution of this very distant and icy orphan castoff from the very beginning of our solar system.

The second stop of an approximate 7.5 year journey which saw its first celestial check stop at the asteroid Vesta, in which it has already achieved great accomplishments spending well over a year circling and surveying the first of two extraterrestrial bodies, Dawn utilized its 3 innovative ion engines, one of the most sophisticated propulsion systems ever conceived, to thrust its way, without fail, through the vast asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Now in orbit, Dawn will carry out its mission of surface mapping and scientific data acquisition, with it’s gamma-ray and neutron detectors, and transmit this precious data from its new permanent residence as a perpetual satellite of Ceres.

It is a technological marvel that we are able to conceive of such a mission in the first place, let alone plan, design, construct and then launch such a vehicle, equipped with a full scientific laboratory, into the harsh environment of space to investigate an unknown part of the solar system and get a glimpse of what it was like at the early beginnings of formation.

So with so much time, money, and science riding on the success of this mission, just how much thought and focus is put into developing and maintaining quality during the engineering, construction and operation of such a highly sophisticated piece of technology and ensuring that it performs as designed throughout the lifecycle of the mission?

Well I am no rocket scientist, but I think I can say, without much doubt, that quality management was and remains to be a huge factor in this impressive but high risk process.

Learning from the past

NASA and the world are all too aware of the risk and consequences associated with poor communication and ignoring the warning signs while deviating from established standards and procedure. With the high profile losses due to predictable and forseen catastrophic failure events leading to the complete destruction of space shuttles Challenger in January of 1986 and again Columbia in February of 2003 and the combined loss of 14 astronauts.

Yes, Dawn is an unmanned mission, but the loss of priceless exploratory and scientific data, along with years of planning and development, not to mention the 7 plus years of mission operation just to reach its destination, would be a heartbreaking and costly pill to swallow, more so if the failure was due to poor adherence to quality standards and practices.

What can we learn from Dawn?

Now of course, we are not all employed by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or likely not even one of the many vendors or contractors utilized on the project, but does that mean we should not place the same emphasis on the development, implementation and adherence to the same quality processes and standards in our own professional duties to ensure we produce the highest quality product or service we can?

Failure is not an option

We all have our missions to the outer reaches of our professional solar systems. It is our responsibility to adhere to established standards and continually improve those standards in the performance of our own individual duties and make certain that our part is not the piece that will bring the overall mission to a grinding halt!

There are countless possibilities for failure in the planning, development and operational phases of the Dawn mission and a multitude of Countries, organizations and individuals, all with a hand in its success (or failure). Each with their own methods of ensuring quality relating to their individual piece of the puzzle.

Behind the scenes

You can be certain that behind the scenes, hidden from the news coverage and YouTube videos of mysterious bright patches in Ceres craters, there are teams of quality management professionals performing checks, inspections and audits. There are formal written procedures and strict operating instructions, checklists and design standards that have been meticulously developed through years of lessons learned on past missions and technologies.

You will not see them high-fiving in the mission control room on an episode of Nova, during a successful launch, or when the first images of a new dwarf planet are beamed back to earth. But without them there would be no launch, or grainy, yet beautiful, photograph of a rocky and cratered alien surface to cheer about in the first place.


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