Life on Mars

Applying Business School Lessons to Space Missions

written by Tamar Laddy
photography by Betsy Winchell


NASA Celebration

"Touchdown confirmed. We are safe on Mars." 
If you were one of the millions who tuned in August 5, 2012 to witness NASA's Mars rover Curiosity land on the surface of the red planet, the voice you heard pronouncing these historic words belongs to UCLA Anderson alumnus Allen Chen (FEMBA '07). 

Chen, a senior engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), is one of six UCLA Anderson grads who contributed to the groundbreaking mission. Over the course of eight years, these alumni played a crucial role in shepherding the six-wheeled, two-ton robotic vehicle from inception to touchdown, all while applying lessons learned at business school.  Chen, who has worked at JPL since 2002, joined the Curiosity team during the early planning stages. As an operations lead for the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) phase, he helped ensure the rover's safe passage during the so-called "seven minutes of terror"-the time it takes vehicles to reach Mars' surface once they've entered the planet's atmosphere.  At JPL, where Mars exploration is one of dozens of initiatives in play, part of a manager's role is to make a strong case for internal resources. Chen says the negotiation skills he picked up at business school helped him secure the engineering manpower and financial support he needed to guarantee his team's success. He also credits UCLA Anderson with giving him the confidence to sell ideas up the food chain, particularly at an nize what motivates people helped me be a better leader."  

Keith Comeaux Click to Enlarge

Keith Naviaux (FEMBA '98), who served as Comeaux's deputy for launch/cruise/EDL, says he also leaned on his B-school management skills. "Everybody has their own approaches and own way of doing things," Naviaux says. "UCLA Anderson helped me figure out how to motivate people, interact with employees and deal with situations that may not be going well."  Naviaux currently serves as deputy team chief for Curiosity's surface operations, managing a team of 35 engineers who continue to monitor the rover as it explores new terrain. He says the production management courses he took at UCLA Anderson have proven valuable in his new role, particularly when it comes to identifying potential bottlenecks in workflow and improving his team's efficiency.   For Kelly Clarke (FEMBA '02), a JPL software engineer who joined the Mars Curiosity team in 2007,  risk management and contingency planning were essential in her day-to-day duties as deputy team chief for Curiosity's real-time operations. Clarke's team of coders created the software that communicated with the spaceship during its cruise and landing phases, delivering data into the hands of hundreds of eager engineers and scientists back on Earth. 

"The broad base of skill sets I learned at UCLA Anderson apply in so many different ways," Clarke says. "They're a foundation to build on, especially in dealing with the idiosyncrasies we're confronted with on missions like Curiosity." Two additional UCLA Anderson alumni contributed to the project: Jeffery Favretto (FEMBA '09) helped test the rover's EDL systems  before transitioning on to another JPL mission, while Saina Ghandchi (EMBA '13) served as lead engineer for the design, fabrication and testing of the parachute closeout cone deployed during landing. 

With the exception of Favretto and Ghandchi, each of the UCLA Anderson alumni were on hand in JPL's mission control room to witness Curiosity's touchdown. Dressed in matching blue polo shirts and snacking on NASA's traditional lucky peanuts, they watched in awe as their combined efforts came to fruition.    "There's nothing like seeing the things you work on land on another planet," says Clarke, who still gets goose bumps thinking back to that day. "When my lifeflashes before my eyes, I will see those moments."

"There's nothing like seeing the things you work on  land on another planet," says Clarke