NASA’s Mars Program after the Young Report, Part I

Opening Statement of Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner

Committee on Science

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Last December, people around the world waited eagerly for the Mars Polar Lander to break the silence it had maintained during its descent to the surface of Mars and to begin describing-through pictures and data-its surroundings. Within the hours of silence that followed, however, anticipation turned to uneasiness. Within days, that uneasiness had become despair. Within weeks, there was anger and frustration over what had become the second Mars mission to be lost in just a matter of months.

Soon after that, I traveled to California to take part in a town hall meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. My message that day was one of encouragement in the face of adversity. At the time, I stated that we needed to wait for the findings of a Blue Ribbon panel that would be appointed to look into the mission failures.

That panel has since spoken-its Chairman is before us today-and so now it’s time to take stock of the situation and begin assessing what to do next.

Let me be clear-it is not our job, or our intent, to try to run NASA from Capitol Hill. Our role is not to try to micromanage each mission, project, or program.

But, after reading these reports, I am left to wonder: who was managing them? The information in these reports leads me to believe that the issue of effective management is the major issue facing NASA. Whether cost, schedule and other limitations were too tight, whether there were personnel or other shortages-all of these come down to issues of management. Simply throwing more money or more people at the problem will not address the underlying management issues uncovered in these reports.

I have been a proponent of the Faster, Better, Cheaper way of doing business at NASA since its introduction. Nothing in any of the recently released reports changes my view. I still believe that Faster, Better, Cheaper works and that the only alternative to Faster, Better, Cheaper is to not fly missions at all.

But Faster, Better, Cheaper was supposed to be a way of pushing the technological and scientific envelope in order to make the entire space program more responsive and more robust. It must never become a cover for mediocre engineering, haphazard testing, and insufficient project management.

We all understand the risks associated with deep space missions. The concern is not simply that two missions in a row failed. It’s the way they failed. These missions were brought down by simple mistakes-a missing line of computer code, data that wasn’t converted from English to metric units. Those kinds of failures rapidly erode public support and can threaten an entire program.

At its best, the American deep space program is an inspiration to the world. Right now, I’m sorry to say, it’s starting to lose its luster. I hope we will get some ideas today about what needs to be done to start addressing the problems and get NASA back on track.