Back to the drawing board for NASA

NASA's decision last month to scrap the X-33 reusable aerospace plane after investing $1.3 billion is a sort of sad denouement to the space agency's desperate effort to build a firm foundation for future space operations.

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON — NASA's decision last month to scrap the X-33 reusable aerospace plane after investing $1.3 billion is a sort of sad denouement to the space agency's desperate effort to build a firm foundation for future space operations. The money spent so far includes $356 million by the industry team led by Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

On one point everyone is agreed: NASA must have a cost-effective replacement for the 20-year-old Space Shuttle, which the congressional watchdog agency the General Accounting Office estimates now costs $10,0000 to put every pound of payload into orbit — whether it's John Glenn, scientific experiments, or Tang orange drink. Like its previously failed predecessors, the National Aerospace Plane and the Delta Clipper, the X-33 was supposed to cut those costs to $1,000 a pound.

Coming on the heels of such previous NASA embarrassments as the 1998 failures in the Mars program, Shuttle wiring problems, and the interminable delays of the International Space Station, this giant step backward raises questions about the agency's ability to implement risky new technologies, as it did so magnificently three decades ago during the Apollo program.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin acknowledged as much in assessing why NASA launched the X-33 program in the first place and why NASA leaders have pulled the plug now. "We needed shaking up. We needed to take bold moves, recognizing that some would succeed, some would fail," he said. "We are going to take off our silk scarves and retire them for a while."

I'm not so sure the silk scarves should be retired. What made Apollo so successful was the ability of the NASA-industry team to develop the supporting technologies in parallel and then test them in space concurrently rather than serially — known as the "all-up" method. This is admittedly an inherently risky approach, but it pays off with big dividends for the government and industry.

As a rookie reporter back in the Apollo days, I remember how everybody involved was on the same page. All the contractors and NASA personnel worked off a common database. Everybody had the same master chart spelling out the critical milestones leading up to the moon landing. Successfully completed tasks were marked in green, potential problems in yellow, and problems needing immediate attention in red.

The charts weren't even generated by computers in those days, and my recollection is that they were updated manually about once a week. I sat in on a couple meetings at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., as well as at Boeing in Seattle, as the engineers all got on teleconferences and wrestled with those problems. There was a certain spirit of quiet confidence about the whole thing.

NASA didn't invent concurrent development. The Navy did. Back in the 1950s Adm. Hyman Rickover's team developed what became known as the Program Evaluation Review Technique, or PERT, for the Polaris nuclear missile program. This technique was first applied to the daunting task of coordinating the development and deployment of the nuclear-powered submarines, the submarine- launched ballistic missiles, and all the supporting facilities.

The Navy team didn't have the luxury of doing all that sequentially. The theory at the time (later discovered to be overrated) was that the Russians were ahead in strategic missiles and that the United States had to exert every effort to close the so-called missile gap. Nonetheless, PERT worked for the Navy, and NASA benefited from the experience in closing its own assumed space gap with the Russians.

For those of us with long memories, what makes the X-33 demise so sad is that it represents a departure from the bold ventures of the past. NASA engineers have even coined a new term for what used to be called milestones. They now call them "inch-stones" to stress their greater attention to detail.

Caution is, of course, inherent in bureaucratic organizations — and I'm not using that term pejoratively here — and NASA celebrated its 42nd birthday last October. But facing up to risk should also be inherent. I've cited in the past in this column how the senior Tom Watson measured the success of IBM by the number of its failed research programs.

In fairness to NASA, agency leaders have demonstrated an awareness of this dilemma. In the report "Enhancing Mission Success — a Framework for the Future," NASA faced up to the issue head-on.

"Failure provides us the stimulus to scrutinize the practices by which we strive to achieve our scientific and technological objectives," NASA officials concluded. "As we evaluate those practices, we do it with awareness of and respect for our considerable successes, using them to build the framework to guide future endeavors." The report was issued last December and co-authored by NASA chief engineer Brian Keegan and Carolyn Griner, deputy director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and head of the NASA Integrated Action Team.

So it's back to the drawing board for NASA. Instead of having a risky project to concentrate efforts and drive technology development, the agency will invest in the supporting technologies so they will be available the next time around. Even before Goldin and company pulled the plug on the X-33 they won congressional approval to spend $4.5 billion over the next five years to test the most promising of new technologies.

Under the stewardship of Goldin, with his mantra "faster, better, cheaper," NASA has been able to sustain its annual budget at a steady $14 billion a year — and Congress has shown willingness to push that up to $16 billion over the next five years.

Of greater significance to industry, however, is what that additional money will buy — and what it won't. Labor-intensive mission-support operations are to stay on a plateau of about a fifth of the agency's budget while manned space flight operations, which a decade ago ate nearly half, are now down to 40 percent and expected to decline steadily to 30 percent of total agency spending by Fiscal Year 2005.

This frees up money for two other hardware-related areas that represented less than a third of NASA's budget a decade ago and now are planned to reach more than half in the next five years.

Aerospace technology (with heavy emphasis on information technology, nanotechnology, and biotechnology) is due to nearly double its share of the NASA budget over the next five years from 8 percent to 15 percent. The total for science programs, which are major users of electronic instrumentation, is expected to edge up from 33 percent to 36 percent.

Technology development for its own sake has proven to be of dubious value, at best, in the past. The approach lacks the urgency of getting submarines out to sea or landing on the moon within a decade. Samuel Johnson probably put it best with his oft-quoted opinion, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

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