The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News
Number 34: March 23, 2000

“This is world class performance by any reasonable standard.”
NASA Administrator Dan Goldin

Recent difficulties faced by NASA, including problems with the
shuttle fleet and the failures of two Mars missions, loomed as
the primary topic of House and Senate hearings on the space
agency within the past week. House appropriators on the VA/HUD
appropriations subcommittee were very supportive of the agency
and its request for a budget increase, even as they questioned
its spate of problems. Senate members of the Commerce
Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space were somewhat more
critical as they heard testimony on a number of reviews analyzing
the agency’s shortcomings. In particular, many questioned
whether NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s ‘faster, better, cheaper’
(FBC) approach had led to failures in program management.

House VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R-
NY), at a March 15 hearing, told Goldin that it was “safe to
say…you have the strong support” of the subcommittee. He was
pleased with the 3.2 percent increase requested for NASA’s FY
2001 budget, but warned that the budget resolution might not
allow much room for increases in domestic discretionary spending.
“I think everyone should prepare for a bumpy ride again this
year,” Walsh cautioned. His warning was echoed by other
subcommittee members; Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-
WV) called the requested increase “a welcome sign” but added that
“the debate over the larger budget question…may have as much
effect on NASA’s overall funding as anything we do here in this

Much of the discussion centered around the findings of the
independent reviews. Goldin reminded the subcommittee of NASA’s
recent achievements as well as its disappointments, but admitted
to some problems. In particular, he said, the agency may have
placed “too much emphasis on not breaking cost and schedule

Walsh and others had questions on the status of Russian efforts
on the space station; Goldin was confident that the first crew
will begin living aboard the station this year. Rep. Joe
Knollenberg (R-MI) wanted to know if NASA’s climate change
research was politically-motivated. Goldin assured him that the
research was peer-reviewed, addressed all sides of the issue, and
was made available to the entire scientific community. Earth
Science funding would decrease (by 2.6 percent) in the FY 2001
request, he said, because NASA is in the process of launching
nearly 30 Earth Science spacecraft in the next few years and the
program needed a “prudent pause” for review before going ahead
with the next generation of missions.

Walsh asked whether NASA was making technologies it developed
available to local and municipal governments for weather and
natural disaster forecasting, land use, smart growth, and other
applications. Goldin said the agency had some pilot programs but
“I don’t think we’re as aggressive as we could or should be in
this area.” Walsh urged more effort, because “one of the best
ways to resolve arguments” over trade-offs between housing and
veterans needs and NASA programs is by demonstrating the benefits
to the American public of NASA technologies. Following up on
earlier questions, Mollohan asked whether the Mars failures were
“casualties of ‘faster, better, cheaper.'” Goldin replied that
“the ‘faster, better, cheaper’ concept is absolutely okay,” but
he partially blamed himself for not better communicating to his
employees what is expected from them. “I think some treated cost
and schedule as a holy cow,” he said.

Yesterday, members of the Senate Science, Technology and Space
panel also questioned the consequences of the FBC approach.
While saying he appreciated “the technical challenges and hurdles
NASA faces,” subcommittee chairman Bill Frist (R-TN) remarked
that “for $14 billion a year, the American taxpayers deserve
better.” Full committee chairman John McCain (R-AZ) added, “the
extent of mismanagement expressed in the reports is somewhat
startling.” Several other members spoke up for NASA, with Sen.
Conrad Burns (R-MT) urging that the recent failures be assessed
in the context of the agency’s many successes, and Sen. Byron
Dorgan (D-ND) stating that “we have trouble parking in a two-car
garage, and we want to criticize those who can’t land on Mars.”
Goldin defended his record at NASA, pointing out that “since
1992, NASA has launched 146 payloads” worth $18 billion. Of
those launches, 136 were successful and 10 failed, with a loss of
less than three percent of total costs.

“This is world class performance by any reasonable standard,”
Goldin declared. But he did admit to management shortfalls and
noted that NASA had initiated many of the independent reviews to
assess the causes. The reports have come to some common
findings, he acknowledged, particularly regarding inadequate
adherence to good management principles. He attributed this
failing to the fact that over the past decade NASA dramatically
increased its number of missions and decreased the time for each,
while downsizing its staff, resulting in young program managers
not receiving sufficient training and mentoring. He stressed
that NASA pushed the envelope of “doing more for less.” “Did we
push too fast?” he asked. “Absolutely,” but NASA is now stepping
back and addressing the problems, he noted.

A second panel of witnesses comprised individuals who
participated in various reviews of NASA programs. While they all
had praise for the agency, they found that downsizing had
stretched the NASA workforce too thin and resulted in some
inadequately-trained program managers. None found fault with FBC
as a concept; former NASA employee Tony Spear testified that it
is “simply attempting to continuously improve performance through
efficiency and innovation.” But he added that “in our zeal,”
NASA had “gone too far in challenging projects to cut cost.”
Frist questioned whether it was appropriate to apply cost caps to
programs like the space station, as McCain has advocated. Spear
responded that caps could be effective if developed from a good,
bottoms-up cost estimate, “but that isn’t to say you stuff a
large project into an arbitrary cap.” Frist countered that it is
difficult at times to get good cost estimates from NASA. He
wrapped up the hearing with the promise to hold another in a few
months to review NASA’s integrated response to the reports.

Next month the Senate VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee will
hear testimony on the NASA FY 2001 request. By May, drafts of
the appropriations bills should give a first look at NASA’s

Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
The American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094