In 2001, a team led by NASA principal investigator Alan Stern crafted the proposal for the New Horizons mission. Five years later in 2006, NASA launched an unmanned probe, a spacecraft weighing over 1,000 pounds, on the first-ever route to Pluto.
Less than a year later, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to the status of "dwarf planet,” but that didn’t mean anything as far as the epic New Horizons mission was concerned.
Fast Company recently shared an article detailing the muscle behind New Horizon’s formidable planning process, which spanned 14 years (9 if you start counting at launch) and more than 3 billion miles. The team relied on strong leadership, rigorous risk assessment, and of course, endless patience.
A huge part of the mission’s success was the team’s Longevity document, a list of requirements for ensuring the probe’s successful 2015 encounter with Pluto. The document detailed the uses of the probe’s spare parts and listed every New Horizons team member so they could be reached if their expertise was needed.
The team also compiled a spreadsheet of contingencies for when things didn’t proceed as planned, listing 249 items that might go wrong with either the spacecraft or ground-based operations. This document turned out to be critical when ground control temporarily lost communications with the probe earlier this summer.
Although the Fast Company piece didn’t directly address it, Stern and Chris Hersman, the lead engineer on the New Horizons project, had another intimidating task. How could they bolster their team’s excitement about a project where no immediate payoff was an understatement? Not everyone on the original team stayed on board through the 14 years between proposal and today, but many did. Here’s four ways Stern and Hersman kept them interested.
Communicate the Big Picture
According to Hersman, New Horizons is now flying through Pluto’s shadow, taking measurements from its atmosphere and probing to learn about the temperature, pressure, and composition of its surface. After hearing NASA publicly claim that the probe’s job is crucial to expanding humanity’s scant understanding of the outer reaches of the solar system, the New Horizons team was invigorated by the opportunity to participate in the making of history.
Play the Politics
Stern and Hersman likely reminded their people that the National Academy of Sciences ranked New Horizons as the space agency’s top priority during an every-10-years survey of its projects. The importance of the project and expectations were continually reinforced from above, making it easier for team members to keep their attention on the end game and the upward career mobility that would result from a successful mission.
Rotate People Around
Depending on their function and the timeline, some team members periodically cycled off the project. This allowed them to diversify their assignments and come back to New Horizons with a fresh perspective. At crunch time, as the team prepared for the actual fly-by, people were much more willing to put in long hours and juggle other responsibilities because they had not been burned out over the course of several years.
Provide Rewards and Recognition
Every time the Pluto mission received kudos or press for its achievements, Stern and Hersman generously shared the limelight with their team members. For instance, the women of New Horizons were featured on CNN, and Hersman called out Alice Bowman, the New Horizons mission operations manager, Glen Fountain, the New Horizons project manager, and Mark Holdridge, the Pluto encounter mission manager, in his Fast Company interview.
What was the longest project you’ve ever had to manage? What challenges were unexpected and/or unique?