ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000
space 2000
Too Much Cost Cutting at NASA?

By Howard McCurdy

The recent loss of three Mars probes—part of NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" initiative—is very discouraging.

Illustration courtesy of NASAThe future of space flight, from orbiting observatories to the exploration of Mars, depends upon our ability to carry out low-cost space missions. Sixteen missions have been undertaken by NASA using the "faster, better, cheaper" approach. The aggregate cost of all sixteen missions is about the same as the price tag for just one project using traditional methods, such as the Cassini mission launched toward Saturn in 1997.

Unfortunately, six of the sixteen streamlined missions have failed—five in space, and one that was canceled when its costs soared. Given the increased risks of low-cost missions, NASA was prepared to lose a few—but not that many.

In principle, the concept is sound. NASA administrator Dan Goldin—who initiated "faster, better, cheaper" in 1992 after realizing that Congress would not fund many more multibillion dollar space missions—was right to push it on bureaucrats and contractors accustomed to big-time spending.

We know from the experience of missions like Mars Pathfinder and Lunar Prospector that the concept works in practice. We also know that it requires management methods so delicate that the slightest departure from them can doom a project. Space is an unforgiving mistress. When accidents occur, poor management is often the cause.

To avoid failure, leaders of "faster, better, cheaper" projects must create a "skunk works"-type environment that substitutes teamwork for paperwork. The skunk works concept was developed fifty years ago by Lockheed's Kelly Johnson as a way of isolating small development teams from the corporate bureaucracy.

Leaders of these projects must assemble small teams located at one site and institute techniques like multi-tasking and seamless management. Multitasking is the practice of assigning team members more than one job; seamless management means that the same people run the mission from design through operation. The techniques enhance teamwork and communication, solving problems before they become catastrophic.

NASA did not follow these methods strictly with its Mars Climate Orbiter probe. One team in Colorado built the spacecraft; other people in Pasadena controlled navigation—a consequence of NASA's habit of splitting project responsibilities between in-house and contractor teams. The two groups did not communicate effectively with each other, and one group used English measurements while the other used metrics. No one noticed the difference and the craft was lost.

Any one of ten thousand tiny details can sink a space flight mission. In the past, space flight engineers relied on systems engineering, redundancy, telemetry, and safety devices to prevent failure. Those methods gave us successes like Project Apollo and the Viking missions to Mars. Unfortunately, they also gave us missions that are too expensive and slow for the pace at which we would like to explore space today.

We need to know why the Mars Polar Lander and its two micro-probes failed. If they worked as planned, but were swallowed up by some unknown feature at the Martian south pole, that would help to validate the ability of NASA and its industry teams to implement the "faster, better, cheaper" approach.

But if something went wrong with the spacecraft during descent, and such a problem were to be traced back to management deficiencies or insufficient funds, that would be a further indictment of NASA's ability to carry out low-cost missions. Brian Muirhead, who managed Mars Pathfinder, worried that his mission's success was a unique event, made possible by a blend of teamwork and exceptional people that cannot be replicated routinely in a large bureaucracy.

I prefer to hope that we are on the frontier of low-cost space flight, a future that will eventually produce more frequent and adventurous space activities. If so, this year's failures are the equivalent of all those rockets we blew up forty years ago learning how to get into space—the steep slope of a marvelous learning curve.


    Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.,
    is now revising his forthcoming book
    Faster, Better, Cheaper to examine the recent failures.

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