July 1997 Archives

Sent: Monday, July 28, 1997 1:42 PM
Subject: MCC-M Response

The above is a report I have drafted on the MCC-M response to the power loss incident which delayed the Mir EVA. It starts with what I think was a recoverable error (unplugging a key attitude sensor), but inaction by the ground allows the situation to deteriorate into a major problem. It is not completely clear from the information available, but it appears the ground may have even aggravated the situation with an incorrect quaternion uplink.

A classic example of the ground having their heads "up and locked"...

General Stafford gave a general introduction and thanked members for attending. He stressed the importance of the upcoming safety and operational readiness assessment for STS-86. General Stafford explained that he was creating a Task Force Red Team, led by General Ralph Jacobson, to lead the Task Force STS-86 assessment effort to gain efficiencies due to the time constraints under which the Task Force was working.

Frank Culbertson briefed the Task Force on the Progress-Mir Mishap that occurred on June 25, 1997. He reported that during the attempted Mir docking of Progress 223 that led to the collision of the two vehicles and the depressurization of the Spektr module, the crew attempted to complete a manual docking using the TORU docking system without range or range rate. NASA had not historically participated in the test plans for these kinds of maneuvers. Ground controllers at Moscow Mission Control reported that they had good control over the Progress vehicle until they turned control over to the crew. It is not clear how the weight of the vehicle might have affected the performance of the Progress or TORU, but it was clear that the closure rates were higher than nominal.

Lesson Two: It isn't better-cheaper-faster just because you say it is.

Better, cheaper , faster. That is what NASA is supposed to be doing on all of its programs. Dan, you'd think that the preeminent place to practice this approach is the International Space Station program - NASA's largest single activity - and one which will span decades. You'd think this would be especially true inasmuch as the ISS program was created as a cheaper and better way to build a space station using remnants of the Space Station Freedom Program.

You often described Freedom as being bloated and wasteful, a program whose spending was out of control, and one which was NASA's old way of doing business. Dan please tell us what part of the new, improved ISS program conforms to the cheaper-better-faster way of doing business? It isn't obvious, you know.

When Mars Observer failed, you initiated a sweeping review of how NASA builds interplanetary spacecraft. Out of that review came an mission approach developed by ARC, and then implemented by ARC, JPL, and other NASA research teams wherein all of NASA's 'eggs' were no longer in one basket. Individual missions have fewer goals, are therefore simpler and cheaper to implement. If they fail, they fail - but recovery is easier and, if done wisely, can be done much quicker by adapting the next mission to pick up where its predecessor failed.

As such, we now have a herd of spacecraft ready to swarm over the inner solar system in a fashion reminiscent of the first golden age of solar system exploration. The key to this success Dan? You (NASA) had a crisis, investigated the cause and found not just a singular problem - but rather a systemic problem. You adjusted the paradigm for all subsequent spacecraft, and moved on. And here we are - on Mars, buzzing asteroids, and getting ready to scoop a comet.

Have you done this for manned spaceflight. No. The International Space station embodies nothing 'new' whatsoever - it is built with hardware designed mostly by Space Station Freedom in the late 1980s/early 1990s combined with Russian Mir hardware developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The only truly-advanced hardware aboard will be the portable PCs that fly. Despite the possible future outcome of your RLV programs, the ISS will be serviced by a 1970's-era Space Shuttle and a fleet of 1960's-era Russian ELVs for the next decade. Only your X-37 ACRV (operational when?) for use in emergency situations will embody any technology truly from the 1990s.

This is not to say that the hardware won't work. Not by any means, it should do the job just fine. The point here is that despite all of the true successes in planetary space exploration, when it comes to manned space flight technology, better-cheaper-faster amounts only to arm waving and sloganeering.

To continue to say that the ISS is somehow the embodiment of better-cheaper-faster is to further demonstrate your inability to tell the difference.

Lesson Three: When you make a mistake, admit it, fix it, and move on. The more you wait, the more it costs.

As mentioned above, one form of risk usually described with better-cheaper-faster is avoidance of risk - through design and/or management. This approach seems to imply that you use a lot of common sense in doing so.

So what did NASA do when it came to figuring out the best way to bring Russia into the space station program? Instead of relying directly upon Russia's clearly capable spacecraft engineering and manufacturing capabilities (through a direct contractual relationship), NASA instead placed much of the space station's critical path hardware in the managerial hands of a capitalist government with less than 3 years of market-oriented experience developed from scratch and an economy they were creating realtime by the seat of their pants. NASA went out of its way to pick the portion of Russia's infrastructure least capable of any long term, reliable performance, and made the entire ISS program reliant upon its ability to meet the requirements of this weak link.

Then, when Russia did not meet its requirements, NASA stalled for more than a year, denying there was a problem. NASA still won't admit to the obvious.

There is a risk associated with cost. You claimed that the deal with Russia - i.e. the risk of having them in the program, was the $2 billion in savings their participation would bring to the US taxpayers. What has happened to the $2 billion savings that the ISS program will get from Russia's participation? It sure looks like at least $500,000,000 of it is already negated through various "help Russia" activities. Add in the 'loans' that have been made from the ISS science budget and the various barter deals with the international partners to offset future launch costs (which we'll end up paying for eventually out of another budget outside of the $2.1 billion cap on ISS development), and this amount rises by another $500,000,000 or so.

We're down to 'just' a $1 Billion savings Dan - and nothing has flown yet. Given the scale of what we're talking about here, this is not all that large of a savings to be bragging about.

Again Dan where is the better-cheaper-faster stuff? The oft-mentioned $2 billion savings from Russian participation is dwindling fast; there is open doubt whether many of the ISS Russian science modules will ever even exist to provide the oft-mentioned 'enhanced' science capability; and first element launch will be more than a year after Space Station Freedom would have had hardware in space. Meanwhile, Boeing's performance on the ISS contract is, in your own words "less than stellar".

It comes down to this, Dan: Political decisions are being made for technical reasons and technical decisions are being made for political reasons. This has to stop Dan. Tell the White House the truth. Admit that Russia has fallen short on its promise to deliver. Continued modifications of the current agreement are designed to help Russia far more than they help the ISS program. Find out just what the Russians can commit to, rework the agreement, tweak the ISS design.. Then be honest enough to admit to the White House and to Congress that you need more money for Space Station development instead of using actuarial slight of hand to barter it out of the Space Shuttle budget. GAO and Congress have already figured out this tactic Dan. At this point, you are far more likely to get the money you need by being honest than you are by continuing this current approach. Remember, with this new 2 year budget arrangement for NASA, Congress has nothing better to do next year except hold one oversight hearing after another ....

Finally, This is no way to explore the solar system - certainly no way to get to Mars. Imagine the response from Congress in the not so distant future when you tell them that you want to send an international mission to Mars - and that you want to do so with 'savings' you have managed to accumulate form other programs. It'll sound something like this:

"So, Mr. Goldin, you want to send a multinational crew on a multinational spacecraft to Mars, 40 million miles away on a multi-billion dollar budget when you can't do the same thing 100 miles over our heads? Come back when you have a plan that works."

Lesson 4: If it is always broke, and all you do is fix it, it is no longer worth fixing.

"Mir has served humanity for twice its intended lifetime. Our first permanent outpost in the cosmos will now be retired in a blaze of glory as it returns to the planet which gave it birth. From its ashes will rise a new outpost in space - one built by many nations, the second in a log succession of permanent human homes in space. Together we will now shift our focus to the next permanent outpost in space - the first one built by the peoples of the world"

How'd you like to say those words to the American people - and the people of Russia? You could, you know.

Space travel is dangerous. It will never be safe. We all know that - and most of us accept that and still yearn to go there ourselves and take the risk. It is one thing to deal with dangerous situations when they arise and you have no choice but to deal with them. It is quite another situation entirely when you continue to put yourself in harm's way when the reason for doing so has all but disappeared and far safer alternatives are easily obtainable.

Clearly Dan, it is time to end the Shuttle/Mir missions. Let STS-86 be the last. Safety issues notwithstanding, with the loss of Spektr, there is little science capability left on Mir to which an American can devote their time. We have more than enough data on long term human habitation of space to build the ISS. All that is left is for the inhabitants of Mir to do is float from one broken system to another.

Dan, why not just declare victory for all sides - and use the shuttle missions that would have gone to Mir to either help them prepare to for graceful retirement and deorbit of Mir or to provide one or more of the science emissions to be flown during the ISS assembly hiatus. Chalk up this premature termination of a honorable program to an unfortunate incident which left the science capability of Mir. Why does it need to be any more complicated than that?

Oh yes, I almost forgot - there's that little foreign policy component. I guess you do have your priorities after all.


Dan, you facilitated the managerial change in the planetary spacecraft design culture. This allowed the $900 million Mars Observer loss in August 1993 to be supplanted by the July 1997 success of Mars Pathfinder - one which will no doubt be even sweeter when Global Surveyor arrives at Mars in the Fall. For this you deserve praise. With the veritable herd of planetary spacecraft to follow these successes are certain to continue.

Can you cite a similar amount of success with the ISS program - or with the Shuttle Mir program? As such, it is time to implement some fundamental repairs to the Space Station program and end the Shuttle/Mir program. You fixed planetary space exploration, now do the same with human space flight.

If NASA had followed the same haphazard foreign policy-driven, managerial juggernaut that it has during ISS- Mir programs have, there would be no amazing pictures from Mars because the camera would still be on Earth, with the film put in backwards.

Last week I posted a short editorial piece: "Better-cheaper-faster (Mars Pathfinder) vs marginal-value, over-run, oft-delayed (ISS). Which is the true future of NASA, Dan?"

In that editorial I said "I just can't figure out your plans. On one hand, you have ushered in the revolutionary Mars Pathfinder successes on the heels of the Mars Observer failure. Yet, during precisely the same time frame, in the very same NASA, you abandoned Space Station Freedom for the International Space Station which is fraught with more delays, budget over-runs, reluctant partners, and diminished expectations. "

This editorial seeks to expand on those thoughts. Today's installment deals with the risk of telling everyone what you know when you know it - and trusting them to act responsibly with that information. Tomorrow I will rant about the risk of admitting your mistakes Vs the risk of denying them - until its too late.

As always your comments are welcome - and requested. Send them us at nasawatch@reston.com

Part 1. Taking the Openness Risk: Trusting your people - and the public to use information responsibly..

When the element of "risk" is discussed in the context of better-cheaper-faster, it almost always seems to refer to two main types of risk. The first is hardware problems that arise during development or mission operations. The second is the physical risk of injury to people or property. There is of course cost risk and schedule risk, but they usually derive from something breaking or being built wrong.

There are other risks though - ones which are just as critical to the viability of a space mission. One of the risks encountered has to do with the way that NASA goes about making people aware of a mission's purpose, progress, and accomplishments. This often includes a description of problems and challenges encountered along the way. What is the risk? The risk comes from not giving people all the information they need in order to make a logical decision when something doesn't go according to plan.

In my opinion, those programs which manage to both reflect and embody the dreams and interests of all involved - scientists, engineers, politicians, and the rest of us - are the ones which enjoy the most success and support - even if the hardware fails and people are killed. This is a hard mix to achieve. We saw a lot of it during the 1960's when everything was new, everything was risky, and we had both Russians to beat and a universe to explore for the very first time. Yet everything was worth doing - or at least trying - and it was done right before our eyes. Those days are gone.

The 'magic' has reappeared on a few occasions since then and engaged an ever more fickle public's attention - if only for a few days: the first Space Shuttle launch, Viking landings on Mars, the Voyager encounters with the outer solar system, and now, after what seems to be decades, Pathfinder's landing on Mars.

The Pathfinder Difference

Stories about space appear regularly on the TV news - but they are usually ones of cost over runs, failed programs, or problems on Mir. Why was Pathfinder greeted with such glee by the press - and the public? With the pervasive gung-ho manner with which all reporters seemed to be covering this event, you'd think we'd all slipped through a time warp to the heyday of Apollo!

I think it has to do with the apparent adherence by NASA and JPL PAO to one tenet for NASA and JPL people being interviewed: be honest and open at all times and, when in doubt, to err on the side of being honest and open. And oh yes, always be yourself. I do not know whether or not such guidance was given, but it sure seems that something like this happened.

Regardless of whether people were actually given such guidance, it worked. Why? because NASA and JPL PAO accepted a high level of programmatic risk - the risk that their openness might include having to deal with a PR disaster in real time with zero ability to put a spin on the bad news. The result? We got to see the real story behind this landing - not just the technology, but the true human story that goes with exploration - warts and all.

During the Mars Pathfinder landing, JPL PAO took the risk of having everything live - including video feeds in the control room where disaster would have been relayed to the world, unfiltered, just as fast as was the string of successes. When the Sojourner rover experienced data relay problems, landing balloon obstruction of the rover, or slow motion rock impacts, we got to learn about it, again, with the same unfiltered instantaneous openness. The newscasts touted the technical skill with which NASA and JPL engineers surmounted the odds.

This was due in part to the extraordinary lengths with which NASA made this event available to a huge Internet audience. There were some technical glitches in the Internet access, but given the sheer and unprecedented enormity of what they pulled of, these glitches were inconsequential. And look at the marvelous education activities sponsored by NASA ARC, ones which began more than a year ahead of time so as to get everyone go and ready for what they were about to learn.

With this sort of information distribution talent, and the raw, infectious enthusiasm of all involved, you'd think that NASA would do this fantastic PR job everywhere. Do we see this level of openness with the current Shuttle/Mir program? No. How about the International Space Station? No. In these two programs we find out about things well after the fact and well after PAO has diluted or filtered the information. What is amazing to me is that the same NASA PAO organization seems to be in charge of two activities with two diametrically opposed goals - and outcomes.

Dan, part of the risk you need to be willing to take is to trust your subordinates - and to trust the audience - taxpayers and congress alike with the truth of what goes on within NASA good and bad, routine and extraordinary. Your PAO staff did something so very right at JPL. Look at the mission operation team that Donna Shirley has assembled at JPL. Their responses to questions on TV and their broadband enthusiasm are unchanged whether they are interviewed individually or together as a group. No PAO 'handling' seems to be in evidence. They admitted to mistakes as easily as they reveled in their success and admitted fear and anxiety as willingly as they exuded jubilation.

And this was all very, very infectious. The press certainly took note. When Sojourner encountered some problems, the news broadcasts were carrying lead stories with titles such as the little rover that could" Dan, this is a cheaper-better-faster team doing just what they should be doing - THIS is how we should be exploring space.

Applying these lessons to the Shuttle/Mir Program

Imagine putting the NASA team managing the Shuttle/Mir activity into exactly the same environment with the same ground rules. Scary thought eh? To match Pathfinder' teams' approach point by point, you'd allow live feeds from the room where Mir activities are monitored on a 24 hour basis -both in the US and in Russia. You'd also allow live feeds of non-personal/medical transmissions on NASA Select. You'd allow many members of the management team to be interviewed depending on who was free and/or who knew the subject. You'd admit problems the moment you became aware of them. You would encourage people to be honest and open at all times and, when in doubt, to err on the side of being honest and open.

Instead, PAO reverts to its least open behavior on the Shuttle/Mir program. A harbinger of things to come on ISS? Individuals who are allowed to speak for NASA are thoroughly briefed so as to know what NOT to say. Press releases are diluted and sanitized. I get all the internal NASA email, so I see what doesn't make it on TV - or the press wires. I hear all the stories from frustrated program managers who speak of PAO saying things such as 'why do they need to know this" or "we'd rather not let that out right now".

In essence the Public Affairs Office dealing with Shuttle Mir and ISS news becomes a Press Avoidance Office - indeed a Public Avoidance Office - one designed to prevent the release of bad news. Had the same mentality held sway at JPL, we would not have been sitting on the edge of our seats cheering the team on. Instead, we would have known of things well after the fact, having been briefed by a bunch of homogenized, underwelming, careful-tongued bureaucrats.


It boils down to this Dan: you need to trust people. You need to trust that the American people will use the information you give them - all of the information you have available - in a manner commensurate with an open, democratic society. You - or PAO - should not be in the position of deciding what people will or will not get to see. Instead all information should be laid out for all to see. If you do this, and people still get the wrong impression from what they see, its their constitutional right to do so. Your job is to make NASA do the best job it can. Do this, and I think you'll see that truth, as they say "is self-evident'.

You also need to trust those taxpayers who just so happen to work at NASA - and trust that they too can be trusted with the responsibility to be forthright and open with the American people. NASA does not need to filter what it tells people. When you do filter things, people instinctively want to know what it is you aren't telling them, suspicions rise, and support starts to plummet. That's just the way we are. So, for that matter, are members of the press. So why do it in the first place?

I guess it comes down to one of two choices. Either you have 'real people' i.e. the ones who are at the cutting edge of actual space exploration, telling everyone what amazing things they have discovered, the actual sacrifices they had to make along the way, and what it was like to experience the whole process or you have a bunch of talking heads read from a script of what you'd like people to think.

There have been stories circulating around NASA that folks at JSC were complaining that the JPL folks who appeared on TV "didn't look professional'.

I'll take an excited engineer in a loud Hawaiian shirt over a suit-clad monotone PAO drone any day.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Taking the risk of admitting your mistakes Vs. the risk of denying them - until its too late.

From someone@nasa.gov:

Dear Mr. Goldin:

We are writing to request information regarding the recent decision by NASA to close the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator (NBS) at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). As you know, this facility holds a unique place in the history of our nation's space program. In addition, this facility provides a back-up capability for Extravehicular Activity (EVA) training for Space Shuttle operations and could also do so for the International Space Station program. Lastly, there are a number of commercial uses to which this unique facility could clearly be put.

We are concerned that the NBS has been closed without adequate consideration given to the considerable programmatic, commercial, and historic contributions that this unique, world class facility has to offer.

First of all, it is our understanding that representatives from NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) have stated that they do not have a requirement for either on-site or off-site back-up EVA training facilities to support the International Space Station and Space Shuttle programs. As such, we have been told by Dr. Littles that he cannot justify maintaining a facility for which he has been given no formal requirement to maintain.



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