My Favorite Mistake — 257: Almost Killed a $500 Million Mars Rover: Chris Lewicki’s Lessons Learned

My guest for Episode #257 of the My Favorite Mistake podcast is Chris Lewicki, an Astrofuturist, Engineer, and Entrepreneur who is interested in developing strong, thoughtful foundations for the near-future space economy.

Episode page with transcript and more

He’s a multi-time co-founder. He first co-founded and was CEO of Planetary Resources Inc. (PRI), which focused on the prospecting, development, and use of resources found on near-Earth asteroids. (Skip) He helped acquire over $60M in investment and revenue, built a team of 80 extremely talented engineers, scientists, and business and policy leaders, and launched 3 experimental spacecraft to advance the adoption of space resources as a crucial part of humanity’s activities in space.

Prior to entering the private sector, Chris was a key member of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander, serving as Flight Director for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and as the Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix.

Chris received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona. He’s the recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals and has an asteroid named in his honor: 13609 Lewicki.

Chris imparts lessons learned from his early days in NASA’s Mars exploration projects, where a potential disaster during a rover test thrust him into the limelight as an emerging leader in the field. His poignant recount of the incident underscores the nuanced details that contribute to the success or failure of any mission and the critical concept of design for test( DFT).

Drawing parallels to the broader engineering community, this episode’s riveting discussion reveals essential strategies used in this high-stakes industry. The implementation of mistake-proofing tactics, robust system performance to ensure resilience, or ‘poka-yoke’, and the introduction of redundancy in spacecraft design all contribute to an airtight spacecraft system. Learn from Chris’s profound insights as he unravels the multifaceted considerations that go into ensuring functionality, designing for testability, and anticipating service requirements and testing needs during the initial design phases.

Questions and Topics:

  • Was it a connector being reversed?? 
  • New and innovative work… – was it a design mistake to not be “designed for test”?
  • Could that have been mistake proofed in some way? It was not
  • Would they have fired you? Did you ask??? Ernie or others??
  • Took time to be able to tell the story? How long?
  • What response did you get to sharing that story online?
  • Bringing these lessons into the private sector as CEO?
  • How many people have taken you up on your offer to share their failure stories??
  • Netflix documentary on the James Webb telescope