At the heart of the problems, Manning said, was a “failure of imagination.”
“We didn’t have enough imagination to foresee all of the connections” between the many elements of the complex system, he said.
In response, Manning encouraged his team to take advantage of the delay to use their imaginations. “We focused on all the ways it could fail,” he said. “We asked ourselves: what if this? What if that?” Referring to the pessimistic donkey from A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh, Manning described the experience as “like living with a bunch of Eeyores, and being the chief Eeyore.”
“You reach success by finding all the possible ways things are going to fail,” Manning said. On the other hand, “you can’t let that focus on failure keep you from trying something new and crazy.” The result, he said, was a far more robust design, and the proof is in the rover on the Martian surface. “It was really hard,” he said, “but it works.”
I asked Manning if there were any lessons he would like to impart to other engineers. “You want to be a salesman for your project,” he said, “but as an engineer, you can’t wear rose-colored glasses. The worst situation is when management thinks something can be done, but the people working on it are grumbling. The best situation is when management thinks something can’t be done, but the people on the floor think it can.”
“If they think it can be done,” he said, “they’ll make it happen.”
Click here to see a set of images that show the movement of Curiosity's rear right wheel as its drivers turn it in place at the landing site on Mars.