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Why did the European Space Agency Mission to Titan succeed? And Why does it Matter?

February 6th, 2007

There always has been, and probably always will be, argument about what factors contribute to the success of a firm or enterprise such as a museum, a scientific organization, an orchestra or a company. There is even argument about how one recognises success: what does an excellent company look like, an outstanding orchestra sound like, and so on? The pages of this site deal fairly extensively with this, for instance in discussing performance indicators.

One factor which seems to be critical is, as mentioned in two quite different articles, the way people work together and how decisions get made. And a major contributing factor must surely be the attention paid to recruitment of those who are to join in the enterprise. That is the principal conclusion of the study, “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. (Please look halfway down the page for the commentary on the study.)

A forthcoming article will deal with this further. It is important to note, however, how little agreement there is so far as government and business enterprises are concerned and how little attention is paid to the actual research findings on this issue. Some of it seems to be like the exhortation that if we want to achieve better outcomes from our school system then we should have more rigorous tests, something akin to pursing an increase in the growth of large cabbages by weighing them more regularly.

In the meantime, consider these questions:

Why did the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn’s moon Titan succeed? In its planning and execution it spanned some 25 years, it involved some four successive directors, the last of whom had served only a few months when Huygens landed – a point he made when announcing the success of the landing.

Why has the Airbus super jumbo project, another cooperative European project, failed (so far)? Does the argument that Boeing is making – about government subsidy of the Airbus – have any real basis in fact, by the way?

There are similar questions relating to the success or failure of Apple, Hewlett Packard pre and post Carly Fiorina, the BBC briefly until Iraq came along and Tony Blair checked his intelligence at the door.

Here is some further information and relevant links to the Huygens/Cassini venture.

A Masterpiece of Collaboration: The Huygens probe lands on Titan.

“The Cassini/Huygens venture is a masterpiece of collaboration, uniting NASA, ESA, ASI and scientists and engineers on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The European Space Agency website

A NASA/ESA/ASI mission to explore the Saturnian system. The ESA component consists largely of the Huygens probe, which entered the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and descended under parachute down to the surface. The Cassini spacecraft is currently undertaking a four year exploration of the Saturnian system.

To reach Saturn, Cassini-Huygens used a series of gravity-assist manoeuvres, with swingbys from Venus (2x), Earth and Jupiter.

On 1 July 2004 the spacecraft entered into orbit around Saturn after being captured by the planet’s gravity.

The Huygens probe successfully landed on Saturn’s largest moon Titan at around 11:30 UTC 14 January 2005. This event makes it the only landing to take place in the outer Solar System and the furthest from Earth.

To the Orbiter, built in the USA, ASI (Italy) contributed telecommunications equipment. A Europe-wide industrial team constructed the Huygens probe. European scientists lead two experiments in NASA’s Orbiter, and participate in all of them. Conversely, US-led teams supply two instrument packages in ESA’s Huygens, and American scientists contribute to three others.

To elaborate the BBC issue. An inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton into the statements made on a TV program implicated a senior scientist who later committed suicide and led to the resignation of Andrew Gilligan, the journalist responsible for the initial Today programme broadcast. Gavyn Davies resigned his chairmanship of the BBC, Greg Dyke, who was Director General, offered his resignation, which was accepted by the governors. Huge crowds of BBC staff appeared at the various offices of the BBC to farewell Dyke who had shown himself in only a few years to be an outstanding leader in the real sense of that word. (There is a reference to and partial transcript of an interview with Dyke here.)

The Hutton inquiry was denounced by critics as a kangaroo court and there have been threats of legal action over the findings. (I think this is defamatory of kangaroos.) Hutton’s criticisms were alleged to be extreme and unbalanced.

The incoming Chair and Director-General oversaw considerable downsizing which was protested by strikes. The responsible Minister talked of difficulties with funding. (Finding links to relevant articles on this topic is easy: newspapapers like the Guardian UK have very full coverage.
There is an interesting controversy about the extent to which the BBC has been constrained in its coverage of issues like criticism of the Prime Minister at Labour Party conferences. The ABC has dealt with this in its programs.)

We now know the statements on the BBC program were correct! The Prime Minister remains in power, albeit for not much longer..

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