Was there water on Mars? Could it have supported life? For centuries, people have speculated about such questions. Since the beginning of this year, though, when two unmanned rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on the red planet, real answers have begun to appear based on the streams of data that the robots have been beaming back to earth. This month Spirit and Opportunity found evidence of Martian water in layers of volcanic rock.

Sending robots to explore another world — though it may sound like stuff out of Star Trek — is a massive, complex exercise. It is also part of regular job descriptions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Its director, Charles Elachi, is also vice president of the California Institute of Technology, where he is a professor of electrical engineering and planetary science. He is the author of more than 230 publications in the fields of space and planetary exploration. Elachi has received numerous awards, including the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal (2002).

Elachi will speak at a Wharton conference titled, Leading in an Era of Uncertainty and Change, to be held in San Francisco on March 23. In a discussion with Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, Elachi discusses the challenges of leadership and teamwork involved in carrying out missions in outer space — and what lessons they might have for companies on earth.

Useem: President Bush has just announced a new set of initiatives to be undertaken by NASA to establish a lunar base and manned missions to Mars. How has this impacted the Jet Propulsion Lab and you in particular?

Elachi: The president’s announcement has put in place a policy that will lead to sustained human and robotic exploration of the solar system. The key point here is the word “sustained.” This is a different perspective than engaging in a big contest like we did during the 1960s, when we raced to the moon to show that our capabilities were better than the Russians’. This is a more grounded, long-term approach based on scientific and exploration objectives. That is what we do at JPL. We have already had a sustained program of robotic exploration.

Useem: The Mars missions have generated tremendous public interest in NASA and the JPL. On television last month you said that the JPL website has had several billion visits in the past month. What explains this tremendous interest in the Mars missions? What impact will that have on some of your current and long-term projects?

Elachi: Last month we had more than 5.3 billion hits on our website. Clearly, the effect of the Mars missions has been extremely positive. To give you some more details, we also had 42 million unique visitors to our web site — of which roughly 40% were international. Obviously, there is very broad-based interest in these issues. The level of interest shows how exciting space exploration is to millions of people around the world. I received hundreds of letters from people who said what we are doing is wonderful, and two letters from people who were negative and who said we should be focusing on things happening on the earth. But that reaction is from two out of 600 or 700 people who wrote to me.

It is good to know that people believe what we do really counts, because getting these missions going involves a lot of hard work. People dedicate years of their careers to make these missions successful, and it is very encouraging to see how interested people around the world are in these efforts.

Going forward, a proactive Mars program has been laid out for the next 15 years. We will conduct missions every two years. That is when we can go to Mars because of celestial mechanics; our planets are aligned every 26 months. For the foreseeable future during the next 10 years, we will have missions lined up to do more aggressive things.

Useem: I have a question about the enormous public interest in the work you are doing. I am sure it has been a very morale-boosting experience for your staff, but it can also be very distracting. Could you talk about what is involved in finding the right balance, and what you have to do every day to keep JPL hard at work?

Elachi: I have to maintain that balance all the time. The director of an institution like JPL has to play two key roles. The first involves dealing with the external world. For example, we have to work with the NASA headquarters to develop long-term strategic plans for JPL. In addition, we have to deal with representatives of Congress to ensure they are fully informed about our work. And we must deal with the public, because ultimately the public is the judge of whether tax-payer money is being used in a positive and appropriate way. That means we need to share the message about the benefits of our programs with our external environment.

The second role is internal. It involves ensuring that our projects are being conducted correctly from a technical standpoint and making sure we have the right infrastructure, talent and facilities. We also have to make sure that our employees are well trained, with the right background and experience. We have to create an environment in which we bring in exciting work, gather the best talent, and allow our people to excel. Ultimately, these things are done by the employees. I don’t sit down and build the hardware. My job in management is to create an environment and background where employees can excel, while also bringing to bear the experience of past missions. Typically the way we do that is to bring senior people to work with the younger generation. That allows us to avoid past mistakes and also to capitalize on previous successes. This is a balancing act that the senior managers and I have to do all the time.

Useem: How has that played out in the past several weeks?   In early January Spirit, one of the Mars rovers, began to malfunction just as Opportunity, the second rover, was about to land on Mars. You had a Spirit team that was undoubtedly working frantically to correct the problems. What steps did you need to take so that the teams’ energy, focus and motivation were effectively applied to solve the problems?

Elachi: One thing I keep telling people is that you have to have nerves of steel. Everyone involved in the project has to keep calm and composed so that we can think clearly about what is happening. Anyone who panics under pressure is just in the wrong business. We operate under very heavy pressure, with the knowledge that many critical things are riding on our decisions. So we tell people right from the beginning that they should be prepared for problems that will occur. That helps them to be calm and composed under heat.

Useem: When you need people with iron stomachs, is that a matter of selecting the right people?

Elachi: It is a combination of selecting the right people and preparing them for what to expect. We know that problems are going to happen. People have been through similar pressure, though it is not as intense when it actually happens. For example, when the rovers were getting ready for launch, things did get very compressed towards the end. There always are delays, and you find small problems at the last minute. The key thing is to get people trained to keep calm. If someone tends to get very excited too quickly, we usually don’t put such a person in a lead role.

The other process we follow is to have senior people work on projects so that they can carefully review everything with several checks and balances. We do a lot of peer reviewing. We bring in people who have been involved in the program but not on a day-to-day basis, and who have technical depth, to look into new ideas that may be proposed to solve problems. As soon as we saw that Spirit had developed problems, we called upon a number of technical experts at JPL to help the team with the issue.

We divided the team into two groups. One focused on Spirit, and the other focused on Opportunity, which was landing the following day. That is how we ensured that the landing mission could get appropriate attention.

As for Spirit, one of the first concerns we had was whether it had any consumables on board, such as battery power. Once we had stabilized that, we were free to focus on other problems. It’s similar to the approach a surgeon might take. The first priority is to make sure the patient is stable, so that you can calmly diagnose where the problem lies.

Useem: Thinking about those qualities in a personal sense, you obviously have to have nerves of steel yourself, and also the capacity to make quick decisions in a fast-moving setting. Your career is very interesting — you have a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and sciences and geology as well as an MBA from the University of Southern California. You have navigated a rather diverse terrain. What qualities did it take to navigate that terrain as well as to run JPL?

Elachi: In a highly technical institution such as this, on the one hand you need to have a lot of depth in a certain area or field. That is how you gain the respect of the engineers. The only way to manage imaginative people is if they respect you. You cannot dictate to them by military order. Smart people don’t take that kind of treatment. So you need to win their respect by having deep expertise in a certain discipline. My work in synthetic aperture radars and radar technology — and the international recognition I got in these fields — helped me get respect for being technically knowledgeable. On the other hand, the MBA and geology studies helped me to develop a broad background. Even though I am not an expert in each and every discipline, at least I have reasonable knowledge about them. When I look at the project budget sheet, my eyes don’t glaze over. I do understand what it means, even though I’m not a business expert. Having that combination of breadth and depth is essential.

Another important factor is that employees must really feel that they can rely on your leadership. I do care about the employees, and they see it. I go out of my way to meet with them. I made a resolution that every year, every employee would have a chance to meet with me, even though we have 5,500 employees. I line up meetings with groups of employees every week. They know I care and want to hear their concerns. Whenever I get any input from employees, I assure them that some action will be taken. The action might be that I don’t agree with them, and so we may not make any changes, but they always get a response.

Useem: JPL is a long-term organization; your missions run over years, and for missions to Mars you need to plan over a couple of decades. How do you develop new generations of people at JPL who can master all the art and science that goes with that?

Elachi: We have a process to do that. Every quarter, the senior management team develops a series of lists. One is of potential project managers — that means people who have been building some experience and who have the leadership capacity to lead a project. We also have a list of fast risers — these are people whom we see being on a very fast track because of their talent, energy and so on. We look at those lists — they might have about 100 people — and go one by one over what these people have done. We decide what future assignments they should be given so that we can enhance their talent and capability, and we keep track of them.

We don’t hesitate to put relatively young people in positions of great responsibility. For example, on the Mars team, the average age is in the early thirties. There are people in their mid- to late- 20s who are mission managers, and people who have lots of experience. We mix people with a lot of experience with younger people. A project manager might be in his mid to late 50s, with a lot of project experience, while the deputy may be in the late 30s. The mission managers are in the late 20s or early 30s. In this way, by identifying people who have high potential and positioning them proactively to ensure that they spend some time handling different kinds of responsibilities — that is how you build them. You can’t get people who have nerves of steel under high pressure by attending a course or reading a book. You can only get that through training.

Let me give you another illustration. We do tolerate people failing. When we had the Mars failure in 1998, my statement to the senior people was that “We have spent $400 million training you. You have to learn from those mistakes, and I’m sure you will not repeat them.” Of the two lead people on that project, one is the deputy project manager for Spirit and Opportunity. The other person is heading a series of missions for JPL. The reason is that these people did not fail because they were dumb. They failed for a lot of other factors — such as pressure on the budget, lack of personnel to maintain oversight over contractors, and so on. Their failure was not because of their lack of talent or because they made stupid mistakes. It was because of the constraints under which they had to operate. That is how we look at failure. Normally, when a project fails, people look around for someone to blame. But if you hang the person who made the mistake, you’ve also lost a lot of experience.

Useem: The private sector is on the verge of becoming a competitor to NASA. For example, there is the X-Prize, the $10 million award that aims to reward the private sector for successfully putting a person into sub-orbital flight with a safe return. How do you see the relationship between NASA and the private sector evolving?

Elachi: The role of NASA and JPL is to open new frontiers. And when you do that, you want people to follow you — because otherwise you haven’t opened a new frontier. So we look at the private sector’s entry into space in a positive light. We expect companies and commercial entities to take advantage of the new frontier that we have opened for them. That frees us to explore the next new frontier, just as it happened with the way the West was settled. I do hope that the private sector will be successful in developing orbital capability commercially. I think NASA should help the private sector, though not necessarily subsidize its efforts. But that is a decision for the government.

Useem: What do you see as the major accomplishment of the Mars missions?

Elachi: If I were to look back upon the Mars missions 10 years from now, I would hope to say that these missions opened the doors to a permanent presence on Mars. Between the two Spirits and two Orbiters, we could say this is the first time for humankind to have a permanent presence on another planet. It is robotic, but still it is a permanent presence — similar to the kind we have in Antarctica, where we now have permanent stations to do scientific investigations. These are humanity’s first steps in that direction.