project and change management 3

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RISK MANAGEMENT: Why Projects Fail: NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter Project

In 1999 a Mars space probe from NASA was ‘lost’. A number of the failures related to project management according to the report of the subsequent investigation.

The issues

There was one cause of the space probe loss that hit the headlines: two teams involved in the space probe development were using different systems of measurement – one was using meters, centimeters and kilograms, the other was using feet, inches and pounds.

However, the wide-ranging investigation into the failure came up with a number of other contributing


  • There had been inadequate consideration of the entire mission and its post-launch operation as a total system
  • Communications and training within the project had been inconsistent
  • There was no complete end-to-end verification of navigation software and related computer models

Actions taken

As a result, the culture of ‘Faster, Better, and Cheaper’ was replaced with ‘Mission Success First’. Actions taken subsequently for another project, NASA’s Mars Polar Lander, included:

A new senior management leader was assigned

  • Work plans were freshly reviewed and augmented
  • Detailed fault tree analyses took place for pending mission events
  • Daily teleconferences took place to evaluate technical progress and plan work yet to be done
  • The Deep Space Network for communications with the spacecraft was made available to more staff
  • Independent peer review of all operational and contingency procedures was introduced

Reasons for the failure

There was inadequate risk management and issue control. The report recommended that future projects should conduct continuous risk analysis and discussion of issues from start to end of the project. NASA needed to foster a climate in which issues could be easily raised.

Minimizing risk was also behind recommendations that in future NASA should plan long-term for a different type of technological innovation, focusing on smaller, low-risk products that could then be incorporated into wider projects.

Clearly in this type of scientific project, there is little leeway in project outcomes and margins of error are small. The project had failed to set clear success criteria for the project outcomes.

The scope of the project had not been matched to the funding, leading to inadequate funding for defined outcomes.

The project was judged to be lacking in good team working and adequate and appropriate staffing. The problem was found to be poor communication between, rather than within, different teams. In particular the report called for better monitoring of the work of contractors. Better trained personnel were required, and project management courses were part of this recommendation.


Risks and their management are critical to the successful completion of any project.Briefly discuss the various types of risk as stated in your project management books and how they apply in this case.

  1. i.What could have been done to prevent them occurring in the first place?
  1. ii.If nothing, what could have been done to lessen their impact when they did occur?


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