We are writing to express our support for the recent efforts by the new NASA associate administrator for science, Alan Stern, to make experience a criterion for leadership in NASA science missions. This issue is timely since something has gone seriously wrong with the cost of NASA science missions, and, frankly, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
Almost every one of the major science missions under development is costing much more than it was estimated to do when it was first approved. The James Webb Space Telescope is the most egregious example, but every science discipline has flight missions with major overruns.
NASA’s science budget, however, is not expected to grow, even at the rate of inflation. Thus, the opportunity to do new missions, to pursue missions that should fly concurrently, or just to maintain balance among all the various opportunities that NASA has to advance the exploration of space, is challenged to the point that there is no satisfactory solution.
Dr. Stern has placed improving the management of NASA science missions very high on his priority list, and he should be encouraged and supported in this essential effort. He began by issuing an obvious directive that Principal Investigators (PIs) in charge of NASA science missions, in this case Small Explorers, should have experience. Managing a space mission, whose minimum price is $100 million, is not an entry-level position. Of course, one can always cite examples of inexperienced PIs who were successful, but invariably they were backed up by an experienced project team. If we insist that the PI is really in charge, then the experience must reside with the leader.
In many regards this is an obvious requirement. Space missions are difficult and unforgiving. Operations and problem solving are remote. A single mistake that would be inconsequential for an Earth-based project can be catastrophic. This requires a rigorous analysis and test program to eliminate all flaws before launch. Requirement creep is a challenge caused by the reality that there are always more good things that can be accomplished. Experience ensures that mistakes pre-launch are recognized and corrected; experience ensures that requirements and funding remain in sync.
Space missions, particularly science missions, typically have technical requirements that are being implemented for the first time, often resulting in cost-estimates by the advocates that prove to be unrealistic. Experience, however, backed up by independently determined cost estimates, can ensure that projects begin with funding at their most-probable cost, and that any subsequent incompatibility between requirements and cost is resolved so as not to increase the cost.
Although setting requirements for experience for PIs is an obvious step, it is only one step in improving the management of NASA science missions. An equally important issue is finding the optimum role for NASA centers in the management of missions. Universities providing instruments and contractors providing spacecraft and launch vehicles, all require oversight and coordination by NASA. How much and how effective the oversight and coordination are will determine not only mission success, but also mission cost.
In the era of “quicker-cheaper-better” missions, NASA oversight of contractors was reduced to where embarrassing failures resulted, such as the two Mars missions that crashed. In the current era, the pendulum has swung drastically the other direction, to where the oversight has become not only oppressive, but also counterproductive to mission success. The most common complaint heard these days from experienced instrument PIs at universities, with many successful flight instruments to their credit, is that their tried and true processes for building successful hardware are interfered with, not helped by intrusive management from NASA centers, who insist on unnecessary reviews, studies and processes. There is a sweet spot between too little oversight and too much, and it needs to be found.
NASA’s civil service centers have a challenging problem. Full-cost accounting requires that each employee has somewhere to charge his/her time. Congressional directives require that centers do not reduce staff. It is not surprising that more people are being assigned to manage flight projects. The insidious part, however, is that the additional people not only charge now to the projects, but they make work, many judge unnecessary, for contractors and universities. NASA employees’ salaries are not a net increase in cost to the agency, since prior to full-cost accounting they were charged to another account. What is a net increase in cost to NASA is all the unnecessary work they are generating. Until this is brought under control, NASA will not have the optimum management of its science missions, nor bring the cost of these missions under control.
We applaud Alan Stern for the emphasis that he is putting on experience in the management of NASA science missions and hope that he also will be able to ensure the optimum management practices for NASA science missions.
Len A. Fisk is a professor of space science at the University of Michigan. From 1987 to 1993, Fisk was the associate administrator for space science and applications and chief scientist of NASA. He currently is the chair of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences. A. Thomas Young is a former president and chief operating officer of Martin Marietta Corp. He worked for NASA for 21 years, including as director of Goddard Space Flight Center and deputy director of Ames Research Center. Young also is vice chair of the Space Studies Board.