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Space Project Management: The 4 Best Practices That Can Help Us Get to Mars

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In less than two years, we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Technology back on Earth has transformed in some amazing ways since then (what would those first astronauts have thought about smartphones, the internet, or 3D printing?), but that stroll on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin still stands as our most iconic foray into space.

Sure, there have been exciting developments: We’ve been back to the moon five times (the last in 1972), launched habitable space stations, landed robotic explorers on Mars, and taken pictures of distant galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope.

These are all galaxies, containing about 100 billion Earth-like planets.

But when are we going to do what science fiction has been nudging us toward for decades, and take a real, adventure-filled trip to another planet?

Aldrin himself, now 87, has recently been pushing for a project to colonize the moon in preparation for an eventual manned mission to Mars.

Why go to Mars? (You mean, beyond the fact that it would be the most awesome thing we’ve ever done?) As Elon Musk argues in support of his SpaceX project: We need to become a multi-planet species as life insurance for humankind.

Why do we need space project management?

It’s impossible to predict what space exploration will look like over the next 50 years. (After all, there was a time when the U.S. military had plans to build a military outpost on the moon and defend it against Soviet cosmosoldiers.)

However, I am confident that, whatever path we take to Mars—whether it’s SpaceX, NASA, or some combination thereof—it will require airtight project management (PM) best practices.

So, let’s take a look at four core PM practices and how they apply to space project management and getting us to Mars in our lifetime.

1. Budget management in space

That’ll be $500 million, please

Back in the 1960s, the Apollo program that got us to the moon cost about $20 billion in 1970s dollars, or more than $100 billion today.

Factoring in the added complexity of a manned mission to Mars and subsequent colonization, and inflation, we can estimate that this program will cost about a bazillion dollars.

The danger

If the mission to Mars goes wildly out of budget early on with ill-advised investments in things such as light speed technology and teleportation research, the program will become a failure before it even gets off the ground.

How space project management can save us

The Mars program will stay on budget if those carrying it out stick to good space project management techniques such as:

  • Continuous forecasting to make sure fluctuations can be accounted for immediately, rather than snowballing into crippling overspending
  • Resource tracking to make sure that every rocket, rover, and ray gun is documented and utilized optimally, eliminating redundancies
  • Communicating between teams of scientists and engineers to make sure that every hour of work is spent toward a unique project goal in the most efficient way possible.
  • Preventing of scope creep to make sure any additions to the project are feasible within the acceptable budget and timeline. So that racquetball court on the Mars transporter might have to wait until version 2.0.

2. Risk management in space

“Wait, if we’re both out here, who’s steering this thing?”

As the Eagle touched down on the surface of the moon back in July of 1969, some scientists back on Earth still weren’t convinced the landing craft wouldn’t sink into a bottomless pit of quicksand, immediately dooming the astronauts onboard and tragically ending the Apollo program.

President Richard Nixon also had a speech prepared for the unthinkable—but entirely possible—chance that Armstrong and Aldrin could be stranded on the moon to somberly await death if their Lunar Module was unable to lift back off. You may also have heard of the Apollo 13 mission, where the crew never actually made it to the moon, due to a malfunction.

The danger

When exploring the final frontier, some degree of risk is inherent, especially when you’re doing something for the first time. But with advances in technology and increased media exposure, unnecessary risk will be intolerable on the mission to Mars.

How space project management can save us

Using good project management techniques, we can mitigate risk in the Mars program as much as possible by:

  • Delegating responsibility so no one is left wondering who was supposed to make sure that the landing gear goes up AND down.
  • Staying on schedule and within scope so we’re not caught installing heat shields made out of aluminum foil an hour before liftoff.
  • Collaborating throughout each step of the program so that every team is aware of potential risks and how they might affect their work.

By the time the Mars program is in full swing, we can also expect to have some space-age risk management software—which works by collecting large amounts of data related to an enterprise’s assets and using algorithms to identify potential risks related to those assets—at our disposal.

Risk management software also identifies potential security weak spots that could be exploited by hackers (because you don’t want to find yourself staring at the blue screen of death when you’re millions of miles from home).

3. Quality management in space

They just don’t make lunar rovers like they used to…

Back in 1970, the Apollo 13 mission nearly became a tragedy for the ages when an oxygen tank on the Service Module exploded, crippling the crew’s vessel more than 200,000 miles away from earth.

Thanks to some good old fashioned ingenuity—and impeccable teamwork under pressure—Jim Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise made it home safely. But a manned mission to Mars—which is 55 million miles away from earth—would have much greater complications to navigate in the event of a similar quality failure.

“The systems have to work as expected for as long as expected,” says Jon M. Quigley, PMP and principal at Value Transformation LLC. “This will require heavy simulation of the systems, as well as extensive testing and statistical analysis of the results of that testing. Everything must be thought out upfront and understood as much as possible.”

In other words, beyond just getting to Mars, the quality of all systems will have to be assured throughout the period of colonization.

The danger

If something goes wrong, Quigley adds, “it’s not a trip to the engineering facilities around the corner or back to the dealer to reprogram the software in some of the controllers or to get the latest revision of the part. It is not possible to go down to the corner grocery store to get provisions.”

How space project management can save us

The keys to quality assurance are:

  • Frequent auditing
  • Upfront specifications
  • Thorough testing
  • Meticulous inspection
  • Continuous improvement

The important thing to remember is that a little extra work up front can prevent months of work and millions of dollars down the line. The carpenter’s cliche, “measure twice, cut once” rings true here, especially when you’re working with Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator instead of wood.

4. Soft skills in space

Space is no place for a “case of the Mondays”

Back during the Apollo missions, three astronauts had to share a living space of about 210 cubic feet when in transit, and two had to share about 160 cubic feet while stationed on the surface of the moon.

The danger

Two hundred cubic feet is approximately the size of a 5’x5′ storage locker, and astronauts shared this space for up to two weeks at a time. There was no room (literally) for egotistical behavior or petty disagreements. When you’re halfway between Earth and Mars, you can’t just take a walk around the block to cool down after a heated argument.

How space project management can save us

Project management software is beginning to automate more of the regimented project management skills through artificial intelligence, such as planning, budgeting, and monitoring. It will be up to the human project managers working on a mission to Mars, however, to excel in soft skills and facilitate the kind of teamwork shown by the Apollo 13 astronauts to resolve conflicts.

Chief among these soft skills are:

  • Communication. A project manager who doesn’t know how to talk to their team should not be a project manager.
  • Decision-making. A project manager needs to be the one to determine the direction of the project so that the scientists, engineers, and developers can focus on their work.
  • Motivation. A project manager wears many hats, and a big one is that of coach.
  • Conflict management. Dissension and hostility can be toxic in an earthbound office, let alone on the Red Planet. Project managers need to sniff out destructive conflicts and directly address the root of the disagreement.

“Assuming we get to Mars…a few decades from now, by that time, all traditional tasks that project managers do now—scoping, planning, budgeting, monitoring, etc.—will be done by artificial intelligence,” says Sergei Brovkin, a project manager and performance improvement consultant at Collectiver. “What will be left to the PM are the soft responsibilities and roles: team building, mentoring, engaging…and reminding the team members to commit to memory and share lessons learned on a daily basis.”

Envisioning project success in space

All that’s missing is the white picket fence

Anyone who was alive when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle and took a walk on the moon will undoubtedly remember that moment—exactly where they were, who they were with, and how they felt—for the rest of their lives.

Just imagine what it would be like to watch a similar event—only in high definition and possibly even virtual reality—in our lifetime.

“A time honored project practice is thinking what the end will be like and working to make all of those things true that must happen to enable that end vision,” Quigley says. “Every idea must be considered from the forest and the tree perspective, anticipating the ripple effect on other parts of the system and consequences to the colonists.”

There will be plenty of people that think a mission to Mars is at best fantastical, or at worst, an enormous waste of time and resources that could be better spent back on our home planet. But with a sound approach based in proven project management principles, human colonization of Mars in our lifetime is entirely possible, and could be the key to the survival of our species.

The Mars project

As John F. Kennedy said back in 1962 during his famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University:

“…because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”

Those same words are just as applicable today.

For project success, we must look at the mission to Mars as just that: a project which can be planned, organized, and accomplished on time and on budget.

Are you a project manager? What aspects of space project management would keep you up at night? How would you approach your role as a project manager on a mission to Mars?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

And if you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy these other articles about space and the future of project management:

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About the Author

Andrew Conrad

Andrew is a content writer for Capterra, specializing in church management and project management software. When he’s not striving for the perfect balance of information and entertainment, Andrew enjoys the great outdoors and the wide world of sports. Follow him on Twitter @CapterraAC.

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