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October 1, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 9


In early September 2005, the Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center received an unexpected call from Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the launch vehicle for New Horizons, NASAs long-planned mission to Pluto.

The news on the other end of the phone was not good. The launch vehicle’s fuel tank had experienced a catastrophic failure during the final stages of qualification testing. With just over four months until the planned launch date, work began immediately to determine the cause of the failure and the implications for the mission.

New Horizons, the first-ever mission to Pluto, posed a number of technical challenges simply due to the sheer difficulty of reaching its destination. Slated to launch on January 11, 2006, it had a 17-day launch window (the period during which it could be launched) in the winter of 2006 that would put it on the shortest trajectory, allowing it to reach Pluto in 2015. If it failed to lift off during this early window and launched between January 28 and February 2, its arrival at Pluto would be delayed until 2016 or 2017. A little more schedule slippage, to as late as February 14, meant that the spacecraft would lose the benefit of a “Jupiter gravity assist” — a swing past the huge planet to gain energy from its gravitational field — and the missed opportunity to pick up speed would push back the rendezvous with Pluto until 2019 or even 2020. If the launch was delayed beyond February 14, the next opportunity to launch New Horizons would not come until 2007.

As is the case with many NASA missions, New Horizons comprised a dense web of partnerships among many organizations. NASA provided overall project management through its Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) New Frontiers program. The mission’s Principal Investigator, Dr. Alan Stern, was not affiliated directly with NASA at the time, but rather with the Southwest Research Institute, a non-profit applied engineering and physical sciences research organization. The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University designed and developed the spacecraft. Responsibility for the launch rested with NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) at Kennedy Space Center, which was using an Atlas V expendable launch vehicle manufactured by Lockheed Martin. In short, there were numerous organizations that could rightfully claim important stakes in New Horizons.

The New Horizons RP-1 tank problem ended up presenting a test case for NASA’s new leadership. Virtually the entire senior management team had turned over since the loss of the space shuttle Columbia two and a half years earlier. A new set of leaders, including Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin, brought fresh perspectives informed by NASA’s recent history. Among the senior leadership involved in this case, only Bryan O’Connor, the Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance, had been in his position for more than a year when the New Horizons RP-1 tank issue reached the top tier of NASA management. Chief Engineer Chris Scolese came to his new position at NASA headquarters the same month that the tank failure occurred. The team would face its first technical decision that required the involvement of the highest levels of agency management.

Read the full case study.

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