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Apollo

Space Program Management For Dummies

By Keith Cowing
NASA Watch
January 24, 2022
Filed under ,
Space Program Management For Dummies

NASA Needs a Lead Program Office for Artemis, Op Ed, Kevin Chilton, Space News
“It’s time to take the best lessons from our past and meld them with the promises of today’s technologies and innovative industrial base. It’s time to stand up an Artemis Program Office, modeled after the Apollo Program Office, with the long-term strategic vision for human exploration of Mars as its guiding star, but with a near-term laser focus on getting us back to the moon to stay — safely, on schedule, and within budget.”
Keith’s note: Newsflash Kevin: the whole “on schedule, and within budget” thing just ain’t gonna happen since the schedule and budget have slipped, non-stop for more than a decade. Unless you have a time machine, your rationale for doing Apollo 2.0 program management is impossible – unless you just move the goal posts yet again to artificially reset schedule and budget.
But wait: “SLS… is the only rocket that can currently send Orion, astronauts, and cargo to the moon in a single mission.” Really Kevin? There’s a lander on that SLS stack along with Orion?
Then there’s this amazing revelation on Kevin’s part: “Going forward, it will be critical for NASA to incentivize and hold key contractors accountable for meeting performance, cost, and schedule targets.” Well DUH. How did we all miss that for the past half century?
The mindset put forth in this op ed would have NASA discard all of the progress it has made in space commerce out of nostalgia for a program management style from the Cold War – one utilized barely 20 years after World War II. NASA is not going to suddenly change its stripes because everyone has a new mail code.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.

18 responses to “Space Program Management For Dummies”

  1. Tom Billings says:
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    Yes.

    Shuffle the deck chairs around and the project will be fine. ….Yeah, …Suuuuure!

    The Apollo Cargo Cult’s latest manifestation is what this is.

    On time and on budget will restrict the time that Congress members’ dependents have jobs in every State in the Union, … as NASA so proudly displayed in recent year’s budget dog and pony show. “On Time and on Budget” won’t buy votes, with or without an Apollo-style Project Office.

    The problem is *not* at or below the level of the NASA Administrator, … it is inside Congress! They do not want Artemis on time and on budget! Now, I *don’t* expect them to admit this, but at some point after the “Dear Moon” trip, the fact that HLS vehicles can launch and land whenever a Dear Moon-style Starship and its tankers get together *will* be noticed enough to get this non-vassal the majority of the Lunar Base business.

    The thing that creeps me out is that the Alabama Congressional Delegation is so close to the CPC/PLA interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty’s human spaceflight clauses, … In effect, “Private = Pirate”. Both sets of statists are in agreement that government should be in control. They only differ on *which* government!

  2. rktsci says:
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    Going forward, it will be critical for NASA to incentivize and hold key contractors accountable for meeting performance, cost, and schedule targets.

    I worked on a part of Artemis from proposal and beyond. NASA continually cut the budget each year, changed key requirements all the time, and demanded repeat trade studies if they didn’t like the results. And, when ISS ramped down they threw a bunch of unneeded civil servants onto their teams working with us, resulting in many meetings explaining why issues that had been closed years before were decided the way they were and why they won’t be reopened.

    • SpaceRonin says:
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      Empire building and make work are not unique are they? The ESM suffered similar. Originally the hand over from LockMart was pretty straight forward although it was clear that it had been over pitched by them and over specified by NASA. Normal work there at the start of any program. ATV was still alive and this was only 3rd on the pecking order for ESA in the follow on domain at that time. The team then was was light and nimble. Although the NASA interaction was a bit confusing: multiple sites were in play. Review management was a bit of a nightmare as RID counts on trivial components shot through the roof. ATV stopped and the follow-ons were unfunded. All pivoted onto ESM and it ground to a crawl.Team growth had to be expected but how much was organic and how much was simply padding is impossible to know now. Design complexity shot up. Industry didn’t care as it kept them busy on it. The additional hardware complexity leads to more complex AIT more FDIR more NC’s and so it ramifies.The original schedule had it flight ready by 2016! Here we are with it being tweaked at the launch site.

      Plus ca change…

  3. Winner says:
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    NASA went from ‘can do’ to backing into the future with their faces looking rearward.

  4. SouthwestExGOP says:
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    Artemis does have a Program Office, it is in a Senate cloak room and is staffed with lawyers.

    • Tim Franta says:
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      Your point is well taken but I would like to take the floor for a point of personal privilege. The only time I was in the Senate cloak room was in the early 90s the day Space Station was saved by one vote and the Superconducting Super Collider could not be reinserted into the budget. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas definitely had a “best of times, worst of times,” day. I learned a lot that from that experience and being in my 20s I did not appreciate as the Hamilton lyrics rightly state the importance of, “The room where it happens.” I suggest we all do not forget that.

  5. Richard Brezinski says:
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    I know Gen Chilton is smarter than he seems in this editorial. He says that NASA needs a central Lead Program Office to direct the entire effort and ensure synchronized efforts. But so far SLS and Orion cannot on their own get organized. Remember SLS and Orion are each about a decade behind, and that was using almost all existing technology. Would they really do better together? NASA had pretty strong singular leadership at the helm of Space Ops and Development for 15 years and that did not seem to help at all. Further, NASA has done a poor job of establishing or expressing why we are going and what we will do once there. For all of NASA’s happy words (see the recent NW item on Wayne Hale) they cannot seem to tell us what and why. Yes, we know the goal is to land a person of color and a woman. Is the plan going to be for a permanent base? Are we going for science? Really? Or are we just repeating Apollo? Years ago I heard about big plans but the last few years it seems the goal is just a newer Apollo. Seems to me Space X has a goal and a plan and with their commercial methods they might just be able to get it done. If we are going commercial then NASA needs to get out of their normal operating mode. Please keep NASA out of the commercial way. What should NASA’s role be?

    • mfwright says:
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      >What should NASA’s role be?

      Perhaps like NACA was for US aircraft industries.

      • SpaceRonin says:
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        For the last 30 years I always felt that NACA should be reconstituted. It would certainly reinvigorate the civilian aviation industry. To me it looks like NASA is structured as an operations management agency. A sort of FAA for space. Much of its high frontier tech dev capacity was allowed to atrophy. It is kept on tick over. You have an ops organization trying to do tec. Maybe it was always thus. The apollo tec was done mainly by the military, no?

        To me ops and dev are oil and water. They can’t mix. Ops prime directive is to exploit what we have. The whole failure not an option thing. It cannot parse or manage risk in the way that the development of new technology requires. Failure has to be an option if you want to push the frontiers of technology. How can you learn otherwise? It is a somewhat incongruous position to take that, as in the shuttle era risk was suborned to expediency. Which would be a reasonable position to knowingly take for tec dev but anathema for an ops organization. Doubly so as it was of the willful ignorance variety.

        I doubt it will change though. The whole ops thing looks great, is a digestible political entity, needs a lot of bodies and it fundamentally adheres to the Peter Principle. It generates cool narratives too. Tec dev is a dark, lonely business that is lethally opposed to the peter principle in general and levies a high toll beyond that; just think on the wall of Pancho Barnes’s bar.

    • rb1957 says:
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      NASA’s role should be to define missions and create some specialised hardware. Commercial companies can create the basic hardware, rockets, landers, vehicles.
      The mission to the moon is, IMHO, to develop techniques for living offworld, ISRU, and to develop resource “exploitation”.
      There have been countless ppts on establishing a lunar colony.

      • mfwright says:
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        Not as a colony but a place of economic development. What NASA can do is stuff like LRO, LCROSS, LADEE, and VIPER. The human spaceflight portion of NASA has issues but the remote spacecraft portion is way ahead of everyone else. Only reason China has done more with rovers in recent years is because NASA too focused on Mars. VIPER only came about after Artemis was created. A shame as could have had rovers digging around the moon here and there (many other more interesting latitudes) and get all kinds of insights of what the moon is composed of. Then commercial companies can figure is mining the moon worth their time.

  6. Bad Horse says:
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    A few years ago, US Army Aviation had a “SLS” like problem with one of its Program Offices. ASH (Advanced Scout Helicopter) – had been trying to build a replacement to the OH-58 Kiowa for 30 years with zero success. After spending 9 billion dollars it was time to stop. Even with government employees / leaders demonstrating significant incompetence they could not be fired. So, the Chief of Staff closed down that part of Army aviation for a year. No work, contract or activity of any kind. Even stated the work might be transferred to a new command. The Government workers either retired or moved into other programs. This was the only way to remove the problem under existing law. Now the program is back as FVL (Future Vertical Lift) and doing rather well with new government leadership and contractor teams.

    The only way to clean house at MSFC is to force the government people to leave. Shut down the existing program office at MSFC and transfer it to KSC. When SLS is cancelled shut down the directorate at MSFC until everyone retires or finds a new home.

    • Bill Hensley says:
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      The government wastes lots of money because it’s too hard to fire civil servants. This happens at every scale. My dad worked for NASA in Houston during the Apollo program. He had a secretary who was completely incompetent. She had been shuffled from department to department because that was the only way to get rid of her. So what did he do? Shuffled her off to yet another department.

      • mfwright says:
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        Had to have been years ago, most NASA places employ contractors. In general there has been a generation where NASA did not hire CS people. What CS still left have plenty to do. Real problem is the salary scales are way behind private industry which has consequences for career development.

    • Zed_WEASEL says:
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      Good luck trying to shut down a NASA center. The Congressional Critters will defend their turf.

      • Bad Horse says:
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        in 1993 NASA and congress agreed to close MSFC. However NASA could not afford to end/ transfer and or terminate the contracts in force supporting work at the center. Closing a directorate is much simpler than a center. So yes it can be done.

  7. Nick K says:
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    I think the good General thinks that the other NASA managers are as capable as he was.

    I remember when they were trying to figure out how to certify the ISS elements, they had a couple neophyte managers in charge. Chilton was one of the top ISS managers. The first element DD250 processes were totally hosed. Boeing hadn’t done the job and the NASA managers never understood what the job was supposed to be. Chilton recommended they get someone who’d actually had experience certifying space flight hardware. What a novel idea!

    Fast forward about 10 years, they were standing up the Constellation office. They put an astronaut in charge of the group responsible for Requirements and Specs. He hired in some 25-30 year olds-all similarly as inexperienced as himself; some had been astronaut trainers and others came out of nowhere. Experienced people could not get in. The astronaut complained he had no one who had any actual space experience; yet he’d done the hiring. Soon enough the entire program collapsed of its own accord.

    In case no one noticed NASA has not flown anything new in the last 15 years. The people who worked development and who established the hardware cert and integration processes are long gone. The NASA ‘leadership’ is now the 3rd or 4th wave since those generations left. Maybe its no wonder they have not met any performance, cost or schedule targets?

    So far the only part of the “NASA Program” enjoying any success is Space X and that is because they do not work under NASA guidance. Their leadership has been visionary and their young engineers seem capable and experienced.