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To MARS with MER - RESEARCH/ers

Miguel San Martin
Lead Software Designer
Mars Exploration Rovers mission
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

P2K: Just how complicated is the kind of software that you're developing and testing in comparison to the software that runs business structures out in the world? Is it complexity?

Miguel San Martin: The physics and the mathematics that we use are actually on the... simple, they are not that incredibly complex, at least what we use onboard the spacecraft. But what makes it complex is the amount - I mean, we have a lot of little technical problems to solve, but just the sheer number of them adds complexity to the full picture. But, on top of that, the thing that adds complexity is the fact that it has got to work the first time. We don't get to take a ride on this spacecraft before we actually use it for the first time. I mean, we do do tests on the ground but they are all simulations, they never really amount to the real thing. So the real, very first test is when we actually fly it in space, and if we make a mistake we can lose the mission. So that's what adds complexities. You need to anticipate every single problem that you are going to have and solve it. If you are doing engineering on the ground, like developing a new car, for example, you can always test it for a ride, and some people actually take their cars and give it to their friends and relatives to drive, and if they experience a problem you can fix it. But the car was tested in the same environment that actually the users are going to be testing it, using it.

But we don't have that luxury in the space business. We need to anticipate all the problems and we don't necessarily get a second chance. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. It's three years or however many years and millions of dollars lost. So that, the validation process, the anticipating... what are the issues that are relevant to the problem and what are not as relevant, is what makes the space business so difficult.

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