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Better-Cheaper-Faster: The Risk of Being Open and Honest (Part 2)

By Keith Cowing
July 18, 1997
Filed under

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.

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