From NASA JPL’s Mailroom to Mars and Beyond


Bill Allen has thrived as the mechanical systems design lead for three Mars rover missions, but he got his start as a teenager sorting letters for the NASA center.


Don’t tell Bill Allen he can’t take risks.

Allen was just 17 years old when he first set foot on the grounds of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to join the mailroom in the summer of 1981. Voyager had recently encountered Saturn, and the Lab was crawling with members of the media.

“It was like walking into a football stadium in the middle of the touchdown. It was electric,” he says. “This is something that doesn’t go on anywhere else in the world, and to be immersed in it with your first footsteps was crazy. That alone was awe-inspiring.”

Cut to 2020, and the veteran mechanical engineer has been with JPL for more than 35 years. As someone who’s often tapped to be part of high-stakes problem-solving “tiger teams,” he’s worked as the systems design lead for the Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, and the soon-to-land Mars Perseverance rover – each mission more challenging than the last.

The size of a small SUV, Curiosity dwarfed Spirit and Opportunity, landing via the mind-boggling “sky crane” maneuver, in which a descent stage lowers the rover onto Mars. With Perseverance, the team had to “grow the rover” more, Allen says, to accommodate a whole new suite of instruments and the intricate system the rover will rely on to take samples from Mars and deposit them in tubes for a future mission to return to Earth.

“We took on the most complicated mission we’ve ever done while we’re changing our infrastructure,” he says. “This is like fixing your car while you’re driving it.”

Mechanical Mindset

While Allen’s initiation at JPL may have been dizzying, his high school years were hardly a foreshadowing of the success to come. “The first two years of high school, I was never in the mindset of what I wanted to do,” he says.

Allen grew up in West Los Angeles, the middle child of five siblings. His mother was a child development specialist, and his father owned and operated a landscaping business. In his youth, he was “always tinkering with things,” Allen says. “I would take apart anything and everything. Whatever my parents gave me, such as bikes, I demolished. I would take it apart, modify it, make it better.”

It was only at the end of his junior year that Allen began thinking about life after high school. That’s when he decided to study engineering. But there was lost ground to cover. “Most students had already decided,” he says. “They had taken much more advanced math and were further along than me, so I took summer classes to catch up.”

Allen wound up at JPL only by serendipity. His uncle, who worked at JPL in electronic packaging, saw a job listing for the Lab’s mailroom and suggested his nephew apply as a way to earn extra money the summer before college. “I didn’t even know what JPL was,” Allen says.

Allen with engineering models of the (clockwise from bottom) Sojourner rover, a Mars Exploration Rover, and Curiosity in JPL’s Mars Yard in the early 2000’s. Image Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL
› Larger view

Challenges Accepted

But he was a quick learner. Early in the mornings, he would sort the mail, then jump into the mailroom’s Jeep and deliver throughout the day on JPL’s sprawling grounds. (This was before the days of email and there was, he says, a lot of mail.) That was all he needed: “When I saw what was going on here that first summer, I wanted to come back.”

That fall, Allen left to study engineering physics at Oregon State University, but he landed a spot two years later in a new program at JPL: a six-month co-op – similar to today’s internship program – with 20 other students. “It was quite frankly amazing,” he says of the experience. “We were treated like assets.”

The co-op included weekly field trips, such as visits to Edwards Air Force Base to watch shuttle launches, booster tests, and experimental crash landings. It wasn’t unusual for an astronaut or lead scientist to drop in for a talk with the students.

Students were also assigned hands-on tasks that were integral to the flight hardware and that spurred creative thinking. Allen helped to redesign Galileo‘s mounting for its star scanner, which uses the position of stars to help the spacecraft navigate.

After his co-op ended, Allen would return to JPL to spend all his school holidays co-oping. When Allen graduated in 1986, he had an offer waiting for him: a full-time position at JPL as a mechanical design engineer.

Making History, Breaking Records

Allen dove headfirst into major tasks early on at JPL, such as the development of the 70-meter Deep Space Network antenna and 34-meter waveguide beam designs, as well as mission support for Galileo. He wound up working on Cassini for 10 years, seeing it through the design cycle from start to finish.

“It was very fulfilling to work on a dedicated project,” he says, calling Cassini “the last of the old-school projects,” where the design of a major mission could take 10 or more years.

Allen soon found himself with the near-impossible job of helping to design a rover that would fit inside the Mars Pathfinder lander and then unfold itself on Mars. And it needed to be designed in record time: three years.

To meet the deadline, the team pitched reusing the architecture of Mars Pathfinder, which had successfully landed and deployed the first Mars rover, Sojourner, in July 1997. Not only did NASA end up selecting their proposal, but also requesting two rovers – what would become the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

“There are not many times when you’re given what you’ve asked,” he recalls. “In this case, it was, ‘Oh, you want two of them? OK, here we go.'”

Over the next three years, a team of managers, engineers, and technicians pushed through high stress levels and around-the-clock work schedules to complete the rovers, an experience Allen describes as one of the most challenging – and rewarding – endeavors he’s taken on.

“Those rovers had my blood, tears, soul, and DNA,” Allen says. “To have them touch down on another planet was as surreal as it gets.”

Quantum Leaps and Tiger Teams

While those twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) tested JPL’s ability to produce a rover in a short time period, the Curiosity rover – originally known as Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – came with its own challenges.

“Going from MER to MSL was a quantum leap,” Allen says. “MER was re-cooked from Pathfinder, but MSL was as close to a clean slate as you can get. We knew how to design rovers, but this one was going to be much bigger and do much more.”

Of course, a clean slate meant a whole new slate of problems. Well after the design implementation, the team learned that there was an unexpected issue with the exhaust plume from the thrusters used during descent and landing.

The mission set up a “tiger team” to find a solution and asked Allen to join. “When a problem arises on a mission,” he explains, “they put together a team of highly focused individuals; it’s cross-talent. Those are always the ones I enjoy the most.”

Over the next year and a half, the tiger team met “anywhere and everywhere” to understand the problem, trade concepts to solve the problem, and then to validate the concepts.

On Mars in 2014, after the MSL descent stage lowered Curiosity with cables onto the surface of Mars via the sky crane maneuver, Allen remembers the feeling of awe that it all worked out.

“We looked at everything we had done and thought, ‘This is the craziest thing we’ve done so far.’ It was super-challenging, all the things that had to come together to make this work.”

Allen watched the landing from Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA. “There were a lot of tears,” he recalls. “I was with the people I spent time in the trenches with to take in the landing, and you could tell everybody had the same reactions – it was deeper than words can provide.”

Persevering

After being part of JPL’s most historic Mars explorers, Allen felt ready to find challenges beyond rovers. But then he learned more about the Mars 2020 mission and was intrigued: The Mars 2020 team (the rover hadn’t yet been named Perseverance) would need to preserve the architecture of Curiosity but create a new design for the rover, which would collect the first samples from another planet to be returned to Earth on a future mission.

Allen joined the Mars 2020 tiger team.

On paper, the idea sounded good, but the reality of a whole new suite of instruments turned out to be far more difficult. The work could often feel as terrifying as it was exhilarating. “A problem can pop up anytime,” Allen says. “Someone wakes up at 3 a.m. with a nightmare they didn’t consider and boom, we go look at it.”

But Allen never loses sight of the joy behind the work.

“Bill is a glass-is-always-half-full kind of guy, even if it’s got two drops of water in it,” says Randy Lindemann, who has worked with Allen for more than 23 years. “He’s got the most positive, upbeat attitude of anybody I’ve ever worked with at JPL.”

Now, as Perseverance prepares to land on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021, he’s already working his next challenge: helping design the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander.

But while Allen thrives on the challenge, that’s not necessarily what keeps him going.

“If I could summarize the best thing that’s happened to me from being at JPL, it’s working with such brilliant minds,” he says. “When you consider we do what no one else is doing on the planet, the problems are unique and sometimes the solutions are as well. To be in the mix of those minds to solve some of these problems – it’s been extraordinary.”

News Media Contact

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-9011
agle@jpl.nasa.gov

Grey Hautaluoma / Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-0668 / 202-358-1501
grey.hautaluoma-1@nasa.gov / alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

Written by Celeste Hoang

2020-233

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    In GAO's opinion, the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) fiscal years 2020 and 2019 financial statements are fairly presented in all material respects, and although certain controls could be improved, IRS maintained, in all material respects, effective internal control over financial reporting as of September 30, 2020. GAO's tests of IRS's compliance with selected provisions of applicable laws, regulations, contracts, and grant agreements detected no reportable instances of noncompliance in fiscal year 2020. Limitations in the financial systems IRS uses to account for federal taxes receivable and other unpaid assessment balances, as well as other control deficiencies that led to errors in taxpayer accounts, continued to exist during fiscal year 2020.These control deficiencies affect IRS's ability to produce reliable financial statements without using significant compensating procedures. In addition, unresolved information system control deficiencies from prior audits, along with application and general control deficiencies that GAO identified in IRS's information systems in fiscal year 2020, placed IRS systems and financial and taxpayer data at risk of inappropriate and undetected use, modification, or disclosure. IRS continues to take steps to improve internal controls in these areas. However, the remaining deficiencies are significant enough to merit the attention of those charged with governance of IRS and therefore represent continuing significant deficiencies in internal control over financial reporting related to (1) unpaid assessments and (2) financial reporting systems. Continued management attention is essential to fully addressing these significant deficiencies. The CARES Act, enacted in March 2020, and other COVID-19 pandemic relief laws contained a number of tax relief provisions to address financial stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Economic Impact Payments provisions in the CARES Act provided for direct payments for eligible individuals to be implemented through the tax code. Implementing the provisions related to these Economic Impact Payment required extensive IRS work, and resulted in it issuing approximately $275 billion in payments as of September 30, 2020. IRS faced difficulties in issuing these payments as rapidly as possible, such as in identifying eligible recipients, preventing improper payments, and combating fraud based on identity theft. IRS discusses the challenges in carrying out its responsibilities under the CARES Act in its unaudited Management's Discussion and Analysis, which is included with the financial statements. As part of monitoring and oversight of the federal government's efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, GAO has issued a number of reports on federal agencies' implementation of the CARES Act and other COVID-19 pandemic relief laws, including reports providing information on, and recommendations to strengthen, IRS's implementation of the tax-related provisions. In accordance with the authority conferred by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, as amended, GAO annually audits IRS's financial statements to determine whether (1) the financial statements are fairly presented and (2) IRS management maintained effective internal control over financial reporting. GAO also tests IRS's compliance with selected provisions of applicable laws, regulations, contracts, and grant agreements. IRS's tax collection activities are significant to overall federal receipts, and the effectiveness of its financial management is of substantial interest to Congress and the nation's taxpayers. Based on prior financial statement audits, GAO made numerous recommendations to IRS to address internal control deficiencies. GAO will continue to monitor, and will report separately, on IRS's progress in implementing prior recommendations that remain open. Consistent with past practice, GAO will also be separately reporting on the new internal control deficiencies identified in this year's audit and providing IRS recommendations for corrective actions to address them. In commenting on a draft of this report, IRS stated that it continues its efforts to improve its financial systems controls. For more information, contact Cheryl E. Clark at (202) 512-3406 or clarkce@gao.gov.
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  • Offshore Wind Energy: Planned Projects May Lead to Construction of New Vessels in the U.S., but Industry Has Made Few Decisions amid Uncertainties
    In U.S GAO News
    Under the Jones Act, vessels carrying merchandise between two points in the U.S. must be built and registered in the United States. Developers are planning a number of offshore wind projects along the U.S. east coast, where many states have set targets for offshore wind energy production. Stakeholders described two approaches to using vessels to install offshore wind energy projects in the U.S. Either approach may lead to the construction of new vessels that comply with the Jones Act. Under one approach, a Jones Act-compliant wind turbine installation vessel (WTIV) would carry components from a U.S. port to the site and also install the turbines. WTIVs have a large deck, legs that allow the vessel to lift out of the water, and a tall crane to lift and place turbines. Stakeholders told GAO there are currently no Jones Act-compliant vessels capable of serving as a WTIV. One company, however, has announced a plan to build one. Under the second approach, a foreign-flag WTIV would install the turbines with components carried to the site from U.S. ports by Jones Act-compliant feeder vessels (see figure). While some potential feeder vessels exist, stakeholders said larger ones would probably need to be built to handle the large turbines developers would likely use. Example of an Offshore Wind Installation in U.S. Waters Using a Foreign-Flag Installation Vessel and Jones Act-Compliant Feeder Vessels Stakeholders identified multiple challenges—which some federal programs address—associated with constructing and using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind installations. For example, stakeholders said that obtaining investments in Jones Act-compliant WTIVs—which may cost up to $500 million—has been challenging, in part due to uncertainty about the timing of federal approval for projects. According to officials at the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for approving offshore wind projects, the Department plans to issue a decision on the nation's first large-scale offshore wind project in December 2020. Some stakeholders said that if this project is approved, investors may be more willing to move forward with vessel investments. While stakeholders also said port infrastructure limitations could pose challenges to using Jones Act-compliant vessels for offshore wind, offshore wind developers and state agencies have committed to make port investments. Offshore wind, a significant potential source of energy in the United States, requires a number of oceangoing vessels for installation and other tasks. Depending on the use, these vessels may need to comply with the Jones Act. Because Jones Act-compliant vessels are generally more expensive to build and operate than foreign-flag vessels, using such vessels may increase the costs of offshore wind projects. Building such vessels may also lead to some economic benefits for the maritime industry. A provision was included in statute for GAO to review offshore wind vessels. This report examines (1) approaches to use of vessels that developers are considering for offshore wind, consistent with Jones Act requirements, and the extent to which such vessels exist, and (2) the challenges industry stakeholders have identified associated with constructing and using such vessels to support U.S. offshore wind, and the actions federal agencies have taken to address these challenges. GAO analyzed information on vessels that could support offshore wind, reviewed relevant laws and studies, and interviewed officials from federal agencies and industry stakeholders selected based on their involvement in ongoing projects and recommendations from others. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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  • Anti-Money Laundering: Opportunities Exist to Increase Law Enforcement Use of Bank Secrecy Act Reports, and Banks’ Costs to Comply with the Act Varied
    In U.S GAO News
    Many federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies use Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) reports for investigations. A GAO survey of six federal law enforcement agencies found that more than 72 percent of their personnel reported using BSA reports to investigate money laundering or other crimes, such as drug trafficking, fraud, and terrorism, from 2015 through 2018. According to the survey, investigators who used BSA reports reported they most frequently found information useful for identifying new subjects for investigation or expanding ongoing investigations (see figure). Estimated Frequency with Which Criminal Investigators Who Reported Using BSA Reports Almost Always, Frequently, or Occasionally Found Relevant Reports for Various Activities, 2015–2018 Notes: GAO conducted a generalizable survey of 5,257 personnel responsible for investigations, analysis, and prosecutions at the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation, Offices of U.S. Attorneys, and U.S. Secret Service. The margin of error for all estimates is 3 percentage points or less at the 95 percent confidence interval. As of December 2018, GAO found that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) granted the majority of federal and state law enforcement agencies and some local agencies direct access to its BSA database, allowing them to conduct searches to find relevant BSA reports. FinCEN data show that these agencies searched the BSA database for about 133,000 cases in 2018—a 31 percent increase from 2014. FinCEN created procedures to allow law enforcement agencies without direct access to request BSA database searches. But, GAO estimated that relatively few local law enforcement agencies requested such searches in 2018, even though many are responsible for investigating financial crimes. GAO found that agencies without direct access may not know about BSA reports or may face other hurdles that limit their use of BSA reports. One of FinCEN's goals is for law enforcement to use BSA reports to the greatest extent possible. However, FinCEN lacks written policies and procedures for assessing which agencies without direct access could benefit from greater use of BSA reports, reaching out to such agencies, and distributing educational materials about BSA reports. By developing such policies and procedures, FinCEN would help ensure law enforcement agencies are using BSA reports to the greatest extent possible to combat money laundering and other crimes. GAO reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of 11 banks that varied in terms of their total assets and other factors, and estimated that their total direct costs for complying with the BSA ranged from about $14,000 to about $21 million in 2018. Under the BSA, banks are required to establish BSA/anti-money laundering compliance programs, file various reports, and keep certain records of transactions. GAO found that total direct BSA compliance costs generally tended to be proportionally greater for smaller banks than for larger banks. For example, such costs comprised about 2 percent of the operating expenses for each of the three smallest banks in 2018 but less than 1 percent for each of the three largest banks in GAO's review (see figure). At the same time, costs can differ between similarly sized banks (e.g., large credit union A and B), because of differences in their compliance processes, customer bases, and other factors. In addition, requirements to verify a customer's identity and report suspicious and other activity generally were the most costly areas—accounting for 29 and 28 percent, respectively, of total compliance costs, on average, for the 11 selected banks. Estimated Total Direct Costs for Complying with the Bank Secrecy Act as a Percentage of Operating Expenses and Estimated Total Direct Compliance Costs for Selected Banks in 2018 Notes: Estimated total direct compliance costs are in parentheses for each bank. Very large banks had $50 billion or more in assets. Small community banks had total of assets of $250 million or less and met the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's community bank definition. Small credit unions had total assets of $50 million or less. Federal banking agencies routinely examine banks for BSA compliance. FinCEN data indicate that the agencies collectively cited about 23 percent of their supervised banks for BSA violations each year in their fiscal year 2015–2018 examinations. A small percentage of these violations involved weaknesses in a bank's BSA/anti-money laundering compliance program, which could require the agencies by statute to issue a formal enforcement action. Stakeholders had mixed views on industry proposals to increase the BSA's dollar thresholds for filing currency transaction reports (CTR) and suspicious activity reports (SAR). For example, banks must generally file a CTR when a customer deposits more than $10,000 in cash and a SAR if they identify a suspicious transaction involving $5,000 or more. If both thresholds were doubled, the changes would have resulted in banks filing 65 percent and 21 percent fewer CTRs and SARs, respectively, in 2018, according to FinCEN analysis. Law enforcement agencies told GAO that they generally are concerned that the reduction would provide them with less financial intelligence and, in turn, harm their investigations. In contrast, some industry associations told GAO that they support the changes to help reduce BSA compliance costs for banks. Money laundering and terrorist financing pose threats to national security and the U.S. financial system's integrity. The BSA requires financial institutions to file suspicious activity and other reports to help law enforcement investigate these and other crimes. FinCEN administers the BSA and maintains BSA reports in an electronic database that can be searched to identify relevant reports. Some banks cite the BSA as one of their most significant compliance costs and question whether BSA costs outweigh its benefits in light of limited public information about law enforcement's use of BSA reports. GAO was asked to review the BSA's implementation. This report examines (1) the extent to which law enforcement uses BSA reports and FinCEN facilitates their use, (2) selected banks' BSA compliance costs, (3) oversight of banks' BSA compliance, and (4) stakeholder views of proposed changes to the BSA. GAO surveyed personnel at six federal law enforcement agencies, collected data on BSA compliance costs from 11 banks, reviewed FinCEN data on banking agencies' BSA examinations, and interviewed law enforcement and industry stakeholders on the effects of proposed changes. GAO is recommending that FinCEN develop written policies and procedures to promote greater use of BSA reports by law enforcement agencies without direct database access. FinCEN concurred with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Michael Clements at (202) 512-8678 or clementsm@gao.gov.
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    On Jan. 13, 2021, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020 (the “Act”), which limits the antitrust exemption available to health insurance companies under the McCarran-Ferguson Act.  The Act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio, passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 21, 2020 and passed the Senate on Dec. 22, 2020. 
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    The Justice Department today reached an agreement with ASAP Towing & Storage Company (“ASAP”) in Jacksonville, Florida, to resolve allegations that ASAP violated a federal law, the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (“SCRA”), by auctioning off or otherwise disposing of cars owned by protected servicemembers without first obtaining court orders. 
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