I could not agree more with W. David Thompson’s Commentary article [“No, 3-D Printing Will Not Save You,” June 16, page 17], having focused on the matter of affordability, and “-ilities” in general, for the latter half of my career, which began with NASA in 1988. The data are there (as poor as the state of cost data is overall). Indirect costs comprise most of our traditional industry contractor costs (the cost of things, their price, as seen by the government).
An amazing thing is the way in which the cost estimating, modeling and project management communities still won’t focus on this issue of indirect costs. It’s where most costs are!
NASA people see it as beyond their control. Industry people obviously don’t get brownie points for trying to lower indirect costs within their company — the many, many co-workers required by byzantine processes. Processes are not as sexy as technology. Engineers and scientists turn a blind eye, not wanting to get their hands dirty with indirects and “bean-counting.” Better to direct energies toward winning that gadget proposal or justifying that gadgets budget — followed by the mantra “space is hard” or “this has unique requirements” (whip out catchy phrase justifying avoiding the cost and indirects discussion). When the expenses are noted and boards are convened, or the program is canceled, complain about a lack of commitment or leadership in space exploration.
The opportunity exists to change this by breaking away from the notion indirect costs are a given, a fact of life, a tax that can’t be avoided, extraneous, systemic, etc. (I’ve heard them all; people’s whining to avoid tackling an issue can be very imaginative). Yet NASA and industry can partner in productive, new ways, as shown in recent experience (like Commercial Orbital Transportation Services). These costs overall in both NASA management and industry can come down dramatically with improved practices.
Imagine what can be done if all programs had such leverage, where $10 before that hardly produced anything now gets the goal fully accomplished with $4, and the other $6 is there for more such progress as well.