Better-Cheaper-Faster: The Risk of Being Open and Honest (Part 1)

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

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.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 16, 1997 11:22 AM.

Letter to Dan Goldin About Neutral Buoyancy Simulator Closure was the previous entry in this blog.

Better-Cheaper-Faster: The Risk of Being Open and Honest (Part 2) is the next entry in this blog.

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