When Alan Stern resigned his senior NASA post in 2008 after 13 months on the job, the hard-charging planetary scientist cited among his reasons the unwillingness of top agency brass to impose cost-control discipline on two wildly overbudget marquee programs: the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and the $6 billion-plus James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
“MSL’s repeated cost overruns played a significant role in my decision to step aside, but other large missions like the James Webb Space Telescope, which have a similar lack of cost-control discipline, were also a factor,” the former NASA associate administrator for science said in a November 2008 interview. “At the bottom of it all was a decision at the highest level of the agency to forgo cost control on these missions, which in a fixed-budget environment meant severely damaging innocent-bystander science missions and research programs.”
Stern’s warnings proved prescient; NASA ultimately postponed MSL’s launch two years and shelved a number of future Mars missions in the pipeline.
The Webb telescope, meanwhile, may be facing its comeuppance. An independent panel concluded last fall that the flagship astronomy mission would need at least a $1.5 billion cash infusion to keep from missing its mid-2014 launch date by more than a year-and-a-half. A proposal to terminate Webb funding is moving ahead in the U.S. House of Representatives, where a senior appropriator recently warned that the observatory’s price tag could reach $8 billion when all is said and done. NASA, for its part, is not saying what it now expects the mission to cost, but recently told Congress that the launch could slip to 2018 under a revised mission plan it is devising with the White House.
In a series of email exchanges with Space News Deputy Editor Brian Berger, Stern declined to answer questions specifically about JWST. But he did share his thoughts on flagship-class missions in general, including those that are well over budget.
Stern, a leading advocate of human-tended suborbital research, began training in 2010 as a payload specialist for flights aboard commercial reusable suborbital spacecraft now in development. In addition to running an aerospace consulting practice, Stern recently joined Google Lunar X Prize contender Moon Express as chief scientist and mission architect, and remains the principal investigator on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons mission.
Can NASA afford to do the Orion deep-space crew capsule and a heavy-lift rocket while simultaneously nurturing a commercial spaceflight sector to deliver astronauts to the space station?
I think so. In fact, I think we must, because without the fiscal benefits and the multipronged space access that accrues from commercial crew and commercial cargo to the international space station, I don’t believe NASA can ever afford to move forward to explore beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) with humans. NASA’s leadership recognizes this, as does the administration; I’m glad to see that congressional authorizers and appropriators have broadly agreed on this strategy as well.
Do you think the Space Launch System () will enable or inhibit human exploration beyond LEO?
That depends on the cost, complexity and timescale of SLS. But the key issue as I see it, is that for a long time now our human spaceflight development efforts haven’t been making progress fast enough to retain political and public support — so we have a 20-plus-year trail of good intentions ending in cancelations. I personally think it’s imperative that we see U.S. astronauts exploring far-away surfaces as soon as possible. And that to me means exploiting existing vehicles to the maximum extent practical to accelerate that exploration. That also means prioritizing exploration accomplishments over new launch vehicle development, which I think would go a long way to generate more public excitement about NASA’s human spaceflight future, including what we could do with SLS down the road.
What’s your take on NASA’s recent acknowledgement that flagship-class science missions are off the table for the foreseeable future?
I think we can afford future flagships in the space science arena. The problem isn’t that future flagships are axiomatically too expensive; it’s that the flagship missions now in development have gotten into repeated cycles of development delay and cost increases that have eaten up our future resources wedge, shuttering out future flagships — and for that matter shuttering out many worthy smaller missions as well.
What’s your take on flagship-class missions in general? Are they worth it?
They are absolutely worth it. I think that’s been well proven by the spectacular results of past flagships like Hubble, Chandra and Cassini. In fact, I think that U.S. world leadership in space science depends upon being able to do flagships. What we have to relearn, however, is how to properly scope and architect the requirements for these missions, how to manage them so they don’t create runaway budget debacles once confirmed, and how to cancel errant flagship developments that cause more harm than good.
What are the implications of canceling a program several billion dollars into development?
Well, that depends on the degree of a given program’s problems, the amount of development still ahead and the fiscal climate of the times. If you’re hundreds of percent over budget in a time when overall budget envelopes can’t increase, and your costs to go are still roughly half or more of the total cost to launch, then I think you have to consider cancellation as a realistic option. The alternative is to throw bad money after good, with huge collateral damage to important programs that didn’t cause the problem at hand. And worse, I think that in times like these, you also risk looking profligate with the taxpayers’ money if you don’t put cancellations on the table — and that would be a very dangerous position for any agency to be in these days, but particularly for discretionary agencies like NASA.
Why does it seem to be impossible for NASA to accurately estimate the cost of large science missions?
I don’t think it’s at all impossible to get mission costs in the ballpark at the outset. In fact, the current problem really isn’t that at all. The current problem with large science missions has a lot more to do with a combination of wishful thinking and some degree of broad and willing self-deception in costing missions during their formulation.
What can be done to improve the situation?
You have to change the psychology currently in place. After all, good management isn’t a process of passive observation; it’s a closed-loop feedback process that corrects problems — including systemic ones. So you have to make the stakeholders — all of them; those within the agency, those within the relevant scientific communities and those within the contractor community — responsible for their train wrecks. And you need to help politicians value program performance and good government for the taxpayer over jobs in specific zip codes.
What benefits to NASA’s science-gathering mission would the nascent commercial suborbital industry provide?
The commercial suborbital industry offers some absolutely game-changing opportunities for NASA’s research and its education missions. These new flight systems, which offer a powerful combination of high-frequency spaceflight at low cost, are going to open a lot of exciting doors for technology testing, for Earth science, for microgravity sciences, for life sciences, experiment technology readiness level-raising, training, education, public outreach and other areas too.
Why not just use unmanned sounding rockets for this sort of thing?
Sounding rockets are wonderful tools. I cut my teeth on them as an experimenter. And sounding rockets have some unique capabilities. Therefore they have a very useful role to play going forward. But our sounding rocket program isn’t equipped to provide the low-cost and high-flight-rate space access revolution that commercial suborbital vehicles will bring, and they can’t put the experimenter in the loop to save cost and increase reliability over robotic systems. So we need both commercial reusable systems and sounding rockets, just like you need both a fork and a knife at a table — because neither alone does everything you need.