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The life of a NASA project manager

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Tom Hoffman’s work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has expanded human knowledge about the wider solar system, and Earth’s place within it. The numerous projects he has been involved in include an analysis of Earth’s wind patterns, mapping lunar gravity and remotely exploring the surface of Mars. He was project manager on four out of eight missions.

Hoffman is now project manager for the InSight mission, which aims to collect data on the crust of Mars and the ‘Marsquakes’ that occur beneath it. The project is a long one – it’s seven years in and counting. The literal launch phase of the project – getting a vessel onto Mars – is complete. The team is now gathering data.

“Each mission that I have worked on was rewarding in different ways,” Hoffman explains. “On my very first mission, I worked on the Voyager encounter with Neptune. That was an incredible experience because I got to be one of the first people to see the very first close-up images from this distant and previously unseen planet.”

InSight’s first phase was very rewarding, as Hoffman was responsible for the success of a Mars mission. “Landing day was very tense but incredibly satisfying once we knew we had successfully landed on a great location.”

Hundreds of operations – one launch

Managing a space exploration project such as this involves a lot of risks, so good governance is essential. Hoffman and colleagues had anxiously ticked off vital steps on a checklist that included atmospheric entry, parachute deployment, heat-shield separation, radar acquisition of the ground – and touchdown.

“The whole process of entry, descent and landing [EDL] involves hundreds of operations working perfectly and on a tight schedule, so the whole time is tense and stressful to the team. If any of these don’t happen as planned, the mission can fail to land successfully,” he says. “To make matters more difficult, even if we see something we don’t like happening, there is nothing we can do about it.”

Managing the time lag

On landing day, the one-way light time to Mars was eight minutes. Hoffman’s team’s EDL timeline was less than six minutes, which meant that by the time they started getting EDL data from Mars in the control room, EDL had already finished on Mars.

“We were essentially experiencing very recent history. Just like the entire team and many of the millions of people watching around the world, I was completely ecstatic when I heard ‘touchdown confirmed’,” says Hoffman. “Having worked on InSight for more than seven years, and knowing that some others had worked even longer to get InSight to Mars, I also felt a great sense of pride for what the team had accomplished. Because landing on Mars is hard and even a small problem can be fatal, I also felt relief that everything had worked as planned.”

Trust is essential

Trust in your team is key, says Hoffman. “Whenever you embark on a project, especially one that will journey to the stars, you need to have people whom you can count on to be successful. I have been fortunate to work with some truly brilliant people who are as dedicated to the success of each mission as I am. Giving people on your team the freedom to do what is needed to succeed, and ensuring that they have the resources to complete the task, has been a great formula for me to date.”

While international space sector has seen private sector disrupters such as SpaceX appear on the scene in recent years, Hoffman says the industry still has the same dynamic environment driven by people with great ideas and ambitious plans. For the project manager, the more people who are interested in space, the better it is for everyone – “there is more than enough space to go around!”

You can learn more about project management and space with Suzie Imber, keynote speaker at the APM Power of Projects Conference in Edinburgh on 17th March. 

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This article is adapted from the Winter 2020 edition of Project journal. Download the digital issue now.

Image: Vladi333/


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