Project Management Lessons from the New Horizons Mission to Pluto
We’ve all had that project. The one that we’ve been working on forever, not only because we have to, but because it has a real purpose. It could be anything from writing a book like J.K Rowling (17 years to write Harry Potter) to creating the state-of-the-art FIFA World Cup stadium. It’s a project that’s going to change the world when it’s finished and so it’s crucial to ensure that it is done right.
Now imagine that project is called New Horizons.
New Horizons was a project launched by NASA that took 6 years to prepare and then almost 10 years of execution. Oh yeah, and It took place approximately 3 billion miles from Earth.
The New Horizons project was undoubtedly complex and the stakes were high. The overall cost of the projects currently totals at $700 million and the team who was executing what under the international microscope.
So how do you manage a project that is at this massive scale, in both space and time?
Know what you’re working with
The New Horizons team didn’t have smooth project execution all the way through. In fact, they had a major glitch just last weekend when the New Horizon computer went on safe mode. The team didn’t hear from the probe for hours when they finally received a signal and, for the first time ever, got to test the backup computer.
They made one key decision, which was to return all control of the probe back to the main computer. Why? Because the new frequency that the probe was emitting would place it in a stabilizing spin that would make it impossible to measure anything. It almost sounds like an Interstellar moment when mission control felt like Matthew McConaughey for a few hours.
The point is, they had tested and knew their systems inside-out. They were able to understand and mitigate the risk of completely destroying the project by knowing the tools that they were working with.
Fight for your Budget
The New Horizons mission was not easily to finance. Missions to Pluto have been cancelled or cut short many times by the American government. It was the collective war-cry of academics, space fanatics, scientists, and lobbyists that helped to get the project off the ground. The Planetary Society played a key role in fighting for this mission to even happen.
When it comes to your increasing the budget for your projects, go in with the facts; go in with proof and support. As they say, when you want something, make sure you do everything you can to make it happen. Your team will thank you for it.
The new horizons mission did one thing really well from the get go: Setting their scientific objectives clearly. The mission has three things that it initially wanted to accomplish. They had set primary, secondary and tertiary goals and they dropped things that, even though highly desirable, like measuring Pluto’s magnetic field.
As you go through your long term projects always keep the goal in mind. Be flexible to changes but always remember why you started the project. Often times, you won’t end up with the same project team that you started so make sure that everyone knows exactly what the goal is and to stick to it!
Keep Everyone in the Loop
Speaking of your team, like I just mentioned, people come and go especially on big long projects. The only thing you can do is to make sure that they know what’s going on when they join. It will make the continual execution of the project so much easier. Having open communication and frequent touch-base meeting with the entire team will make a world of a difference.
The New Horizons project was something that was approved in 2001 and launched in 2006. The mission was not completed until a few days ago – July 14th, 2015. That’s a lot of patience.
If you’re going to do anything that’s going to take a long time to complete, be patient. Be patient not only with yourself, but with your team, your clients and pay homage to the process.
That’s how you get to Pluto 🙂