In the wake of Mars failures, should NASA still pursue faster, better, cheaper?

Jan. 1, 2000
WASHINGTON — Yes. Despite the devastating loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in September and the Mars Polar Lander last month, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin`s basic approach remains sound. It`s the implementation that Goldin and other NASA leaders need to correct.

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON — Yes. Despite the devastating loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in September and the Mars Polar Lander last month, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin`s basic approach remains sound. It`s the implementation that Goldin and other NASA leaders need to correct.

Mars has always been a tough nut to crack. Even though NASA scientists had modest success with their $2 billion Viking program in the mid-1970s, the loss of the $1 billion Mars Observer in 1993 led to the Goldin strategy of faster, better, cheaper.

Goldin decided to spread the risk over a larger number of small spacecraft instead of the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach of such giant spacecraft as the $3 billion Hubble space telescope. That approach paid off with the Mars Pathfinder that landed on Mars in 1997 and successfully deployed its robot Sojourner.

Now NASA is in the position of a National Football League team that hasn`t made the playoffs lately — the Washington Redskins come to mind. NASA officials now must choose between massive upheavals or incremental change.

I vote for incremental change and suspect Goldin`s job is safer than that of the "Indigenous Persons" football team coach Norv Turner.

NASA`s recent high-profile Mars failures — and the not-so-visible niggling problems with the Space Shuttle that threaten to erupt in newspaper banner headlines set in end-of-the-world type — are not hardware problems. They`re not software problems either. There`s no lack of space-qualified hardware, software, and packaging techniques that are affordable and technologically up to the demanding requirements of complex space missions.

The crux of the problem is management. Specifically, the rub involves what is known as "loss of configuration control." The U.S. Air Force has experienced the same failures with its launch vehicles for the same reason. What this amounts to is an insufficient number of safety and quality-assurance personnel dedicated to the mission. This is what John Pike, persistent critic of the space program at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, describes as "shorthand for these guys don`t know what they`re building."

Pike further breaks this phenomenon down into three levels of possibility:

- the program personnel are all idiots;

- their organizational structure is hopelessly inept; or

- the managers are stretched across so many programs that they can`t devote adequate time and attention to the problems at hand.

Given the fact that humans have been hurling objects into space for more than 40 years, Pike maintains — and I agree — that we can dismiss the first two possibilities and focus on the third.

This is particularly irksome for the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., who consider themselves to be NASA`s elite space- exploration team.

JPL is not technically a NASA field center, but rather a contractor-operated facility that traditionally takes on the space agency`s most complex missions under an agreement with the California Institute of Technology. Yet this team of the nation`s top space scientists failed to detect such a simple error as somebody confusing English and metric measurement units in the Climate Orbiter mission.

Spacecraft prime contractor Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver also has taken considerable criticism, and that`s not entirely fair. Company engineers are simply fulfilling the terms of their contract. The responsibility for oversight rests with NASA and JPL.

I remember how the astronauts used to note with wry humor that every component of their spacecraft was made by the lowest bidder. Yet with properly managed competition, that`s probably the way it should be.

One useful remedy that might emerge from NASA`s tribulations in exploring Mars would be for NASA to create future integrated product teams, as the U.S. Department of Defense does now. Such teams might forcefully remind the government and industry managers that everyone involved is in the project together, and is equally responsible for the outcome.

The failure of the two spacecraft at Mars represents a loss of slightly more than $300 million — or about what the Pentagon spends every day before lunch, based on expenditures of about a billion dollars per working day. Far more vexing for the space science community is the complete loss of a rare opportunity to gather data about Mars.

Based on celestial mechanics, these opportunities come about every 26 months. Already, NASA Associate Administrator Edward Weiler is questioning whether NASA will be sufficiently back on track to take advantage of the March and April 2001 launch windows for its scheduled Mars Surveyor 2001 Orbiter and Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander missions. That was the underlying rationale for Goldin`s faster, better, cheaper doctrine: to launch at least two spacecraft at each opportunity rather risking all on a single major mission per decade.

As troublesome as these failures of unmanned spacecraft are, even more troubling is the possibility that the same configuration-control problems are lurking in the background, where they threaten to emerge disastrously in coming manned missions of the Space Shuttle.

Last year was not a good year for the shuttle. As of early December only two missions had flown during all of 1999 — the fewest since 1988, two years after NASA resumed operations following the Challenger tragedy in 1986.

For NASA the year got off to a bad start when the third of the Hubble space telescope`s six gyroscopes failed, and a shuttle repair mission was hastily scheduled. That mission, which went to the Discovery orbiter, was postponed after a short circuit in the Columbia orbiter the previous July caused two of that shuttle`s six engine control computers to fail.

As a result, NASA engineers decided to check out the whole shuttle fleet and rescheduled the Hubble repair mission for mid-December. Then technicians detected problems with the shuttle engines. An Endeavor mission, which was supposed to have orbited an earth radar mapping spacecraft last year, was also rescheduled to late this month.

It is ironic to remember that when President Nixon approved the shuttle program in 1972, the plan called for it to be NASA`s workhorse accounting for 60 missions a year. NASA has never come anywhere near this figure.

All of this reinforces what should be the universally accepted reality that space is still a dangerous place. Estimates floating around the space community range from one in 80 to one in 400 that a given shuttle mission will end tragically. At the same time, space operations are about the most visible of all human activities.

Architects like to say that doctors bury their mistakes. Mistakes in space are even harder to cover up.

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