What is going on inside the minds of Orion’s engineers as they prepare for Friday’s unmanned test flight? Not Impossible Now reached out to Mars Rover Curiosity’s chief engineer for his perspective.

On Friday morning, the Orion spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a 4 1/2-hour unmanned test flight around the Earth. NASA will rely on Orion to take humans into deep space and eventually Mars. 

Rob Manning, the chief engineer of the Mars Rover Curiosity and co-author of the book “Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account From Curiosity's Chief Engineer,” has already been to Mars with missions involving robotic vehicles, so Not Impossible Now reached out to him to give us his perspective of Friday's test flight (Thursday’s original launch date was postponed until Friday) and whether he thinks humans will ever walk on Mars.

“If the spirit is willing people will go. It is a long walk to Mars and back (they will want to come back),” Manning told Not Impossible Now in an email interview. “Long in time, technology, cost, persistence and political cycles. I think it will be further into the future than people hope, but it will happen.”

But why go to Mars when there are so many challenges here on Earth?

“Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told NPR in 2012. “Not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, [but] it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology, and that’s the culture that innovates.”

And innovation is something that we certainly appreciate at Not Impossible Now. Manning even offers advice to young science and technology students in our interview below:

NIN: NASA plans to launch an unmanned test flight of the Orion spacecraft on Friday morning. As the chief engineer of the Mars Rover Curiosity, can you describe the emotions that engineers go through during a major test like this?

Rob Manning: It is a mixed feeling. Obviously a perfect test would be ideal, but most engineers know that the reason we test (and why we do NOT put people in harms way) is to learn something about the system we are testing. It is amazing how much effort goes into visualizing the test and the design of the system. Much of this is done via rather elaborate system simulations, but a lot more occurs in our minds eye. Simulations and mental visualization are essential, but we all know that we can build stuff that is more complicated than any of us can imagine. We really DON’T want to do that, but sometimes it happens that there are interactions between pieces that result in failures that our imaginations did not foresee. Our human minds can only hold so much. 

The wonderful thing about testing that it is the real deal. Sure, bad stuff can happen that might ruin the test and not even tell us about what we want to know, but if we don't try we are fooling ourselves. If the test fails because something about the system being tested doesn't work then that test really paid for itself. There will be millions of people from around the world watching or reading about a big test like this and if the test fails there will be people (and even management) giving the team a hard time. “How can you possibly make such a mistake?” they will cry. The team needs to remember that failure is an opportunity to learn and that is what we are paying them to do.

In your book “Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account From Curiosity's Chief Engineer,” you go into detail about a number of challenges your team had to overcome to make it a successful mission. What advice would offer to the Orion team?

Manning: Persevere. Getting complicated stuff to work involves years of mind-numbing attention to detail and endless hours of testing of millions of little pieces. Eventually you build your system up to the point that you can put it through its paces. This week’s test is one of these points. If this test works, it will be because hundreds of people paid attention. 

Ironically, one of worst things to happen is if everything seems to have worked perfectly. The great thing about failure is that it humbles you and forces you (and your management) to dig down and really really understand your collective creation. If it seems to work, there will be a lot of pressure to move on to the next test without spending the time to really see what happened at the lowest level of detail. 

Even if the test looks perfect on TV someone on the team must assume that deep down buried in the megabytes of test data is a story that will scare the living tar out of you. Potential failure lurks in those details. Look for them.

The Orion spacecraft undergoes launch preparations. (Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

The Orion spacecraft undergoes launch preparations. (Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Do you think humans will eventually walk on Mars? If so, have you ever thought what it would be like for an astronaut to be standing next to Curiosity on Mars?

Manning: If the spirit is willing people will go. It is a long walk to Mars and back (they will want to come back). Long in time, technology, cost, persistence and political cycles. I think it will be further into the future than people hope, but it will happen.

I was chief engineer for Mars Pathfinder, lead systems engineering manager on MER (and entry descent and landing lead) and Chief Engineer on Curiosity. I have often wondered about what it would be like for an astronaut to visit all four of my old robotic friends. It would be surreal. Our technological rovers stand in stark contrast to the endless dry natural landscape of Mars. If people visit them, I hope they will do me a favor. I put little chips on board each of them that I hope a future astronaut will pick up and take home. If they see little Sojourner rover (it is about 5 or so meters just south of Pathfinder), I hope they take that home, too!


What advice do you have for young students who have a passion for space exploration, but aren’t sure how to turn that passion into a career?

Manning: Starting this work requires 90% passion and 10% talent followed by 99% hard work and 1% mind boggling fun. If they have the passion, they are on their way. Specifically in college, although aerospace classes are great, take classes in EE (including analog), CS, E&M, statistics and random variables (control systems don’t hurt either). Learn at least one computer language that is practical (you know what they are).

Don’t forget to enjoy what you learn. Don’t be afraid of the details. Becoming a great space explorer will take years and you will only get there provided you have the desire to succeed and the humility to fail.

Find out more information about “Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account From Curiosity's Chief Engineer” by Rob Manning and William L. Simon at the book’s official site and at Amazon.com

Watch the live stream of Orion's launch on Friday at NASA.gov.

Top photo caption: With access doors at Space Launch Complex 37 opened, the Orion and Delta IV Heavy stack is visible in its entirety inside the Mobile Service Tower. (Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Orion’s original launch date of Thursday was postponed until Friday.