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Deep Impact
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Brian K. Muirhead
Deep Impact Project Manager
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Brian's Bio           Up Close and Personal

On July 4, 2005, a spacecraft called Deep Impact will approach Comet Tempel 1 as the rocky, icy body, speeds through space. Deep Impact is actually made up of two spacecraft: one (the impactor) that will create a football-stadium-sized crater in the comet, and one (called the flyby spacecraft) that will hover at a distance to study the gases and dust flung from this crater. The technical challenge of building two spacecraft that must ride together, then separate and perform different jobs, while in constant communication, is an enormous task.

A budget less than the movie Titanic's and a fixed launch schedule - because the comet won't wait - make this job an even greater challenge. Like a producer, project manager Brian Muirhead has the responsibility for making sure that every portion of the mission performs in perfect synchronization - and luckily he's done this before!

As flight system manager of the Mars Pathfinder mission, Brian remembers another July 4th, in 1997, when that mission made a spectacular landing on Mars. "Ask anyone who was part of that effort and they'll tell you that the peak experience was not the landing, although that was a close second," Brian said. "It was being part of an exceptional team doing a job that many people had said was impossible."

Now he is faced with the challenge of meeting the science objectives for the Deep Impact mission: Catch and make a deep hole in a comet moving at a closing speed 10 times faster than a speeding bullet - 10 kilometers per second (22,370 miles per hour). Then, take a brief look deep inside the comet's icy body for fresh clues to the formation of the solar system. It's the kind of stuff that makes great science fiction - but reducing it to science and engineering fact will take an extraordinary effort by an extraordinary group of people.

At approximately 24 hours before encounter the two spacecraft will separate and begin their individual missions. The impactor spacecraft will move into a position to collide with the comet, creating a crater expected to be the depth of a 7-story building and the length of a football stadium. Its sister spacecraft, the fly-by, has 13 minutes to observe the event and get its precious data back to Earth before Tempel 1 comes barreling overhead and continues on in its orbit around the Sun.

Ironically, the goals for both building the project team and the twin spacecraft bear remarkable similarities: shared purpose, shared product, mutual accountability and deep personal relationship. Brian borrows these traits from the definition of a high performance team as defined by Katzenberg and Smith in the book The Wisdom of Teams. He looks for team members who have both those characteristics, plus exceptional talent in their field.

The image of the twin Deep Impact spacecraft design and implementation is further extended to the team. Brian manages this project at two organizations, 900 miles apart, where Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is building both spacecraft. Those two teams are in turn responsible to the principal investigator, Dr. Mike A' Hearn, of the University of Maryland, to deliver a system that meets his science objectives.

Deep Impact has the additional challenge of having to bridge the development and maintain the commitment across three institutions. This challenge is evident at weekly team meetings on phones and the Internet. Teams at JPL, University of Maryland and Ball discuss and work issues from opposite sides of the country. The project members bite into the issues with all the enthusiasm and dedication of a group of explorers who know their territory and are excited by new discoveries.

This is exciting to watch and is part of the reason Brian likes what he does. "It's essential that the leadership of any venture, be it a space mission, business or school program, set the example for how the team will work together. And it's wonderful to watch how people will rise to the challenge when given the right circumstances," he said.

Each day at JPL and at Ball, a mission is coming together both in construction and spirit. Watching the Deep Impact team build both a product and an exciting experience is significant to Brian Muirhead. "It's the essence of the engineering and exploration spirit - solving problems, doing something significant with one's life and doing it with really special people."

When Deep Impact strikes Comet Tempel 1 on July 4th, 2005, it will be this very special team of people who will stand together as a symbol of dedication, character and exceptional talent. For Brian, that, as much as the encounter, will be Deep Impact's triumph.

Biographical details contained on these pages were correct during the Deep Impact mission which ended in 2006. Several scientists from Deep Impact are now working on related missions such as EPOXI and Stardust-NExT.

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