Former NASA Associate Administrator for Science
When planetary scientist Alan Stern gave up a prized post at the Southwest Research Institute in
, to take charge of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in April 2007, he made it his quest to get more out of the office’s $5 billion annual budget, principally by exercising greater vigilance on cost control.
Stern put fellow principal investigators on notice that they would be held accountable when projects went over budget and called on scientists and contractors alike to halt the practice of underestimating projects’ costs in order to get them approved.
“I want to turn heads while I am here,” Stern told the House Science and Technology Committee at the start of his second month on the job. “I want to produce landmark scientific achievements and to make my directorate and its various projects run more efficiently and stay within their cost boundaries.”
Stern’s resolve was put to the test early when managers of a significantly over-budget planet-hunting mission called Kepler came looking for more money. After being rebuffed by Stern, who told them to devise a plan for getting the job done within its approved budget, the team came back asking for even more money. “I said ‘Kepler project, apparently you don’t think I’m serious,’” Stern recalls. “If you don’t think I’m serious just come back to me with numbers like these again and that will be the end of the project.”
A month later, the team came back with a plan to eliminate the cost increase by cutting six months off the end of the four-year mission, scaling back some testing, reducing reserves and making management changes. Additionally, the contractor building Kepler agreed to forfeit millions of dollars in award fees. As a result, Kepler remained on track for an early 2009 launch and no other SMD projects had to be sacrificed to cover cost overruns.
Stern had similar success holding the budgetary line in 2007 and 2008 on Aquarius, the Solar Dynamics Observatory and some smaller projects. But SMD’s biggest projects – the James Webb Space Telescope and the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – proved considerably tougher to bring to heel. “It only failed at the $1 billion-plus-scale missions, which the 9th floor owns decision authority on,” Stern said, referring to the floor at NASA headquarters where the agency administrator’s office is located.
Stern said his frustration with NASA senior management’s apparent unwillingness to force the agency’s biggest programs to control spending came to a head early this past spring when NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and Associate Administrator Chris Scolese overruled Stern’s recommendation to delay MSL to 2013 or 2016 to deal with that program’s latest cost overrun. The alternative, Stern said, was to raid the budgets of other SMD missions and reduce research and analysis spending.
Stern said he resigned to avoid having to do the one thing he told the science community he would never do – make the innocent pay for mistakes they did not create.
For months, Stern declined to publicly discuss his reasons for leaving. But that has since changed; he is no longer shy when it comes to what he sees as NASA’s tendency to treat some programs as too big to be reined in.
Stern, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for NASA’s top post in the administration of President-elect BarackObama, fielded questions recently from Space News Deputy Editor Brian Berger via e-mail during layovers on his way back from a business trip to
What role did the flap concerning Mars budget decisions play in your decision to resign your position at NASA?
I was at NASA just over a year as the associate administrator responsible for SMD. 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. 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.
Did NASA do the right thing in deciding in October to push ahead for a late 2009 launch of MSL?
I don’t have the facts to know if the decision made this fall was a good one, but regarding the decision made this spring to continue MSL toward 2009, I believe the agency did the wrong thing. Why? Firstly, there is significant risk that this philosophy, called “running for the cliff” by one of my superiors, could well produce a very expensive, smoking hole in the ground at Mars, deeply damaging the U.S. Mars program. Secondly, the philosophy of delaying, canceling and otherwise damaging innocent projects that has been adopted by the agency to cover the ever-increasing costs of MSL sends the wrong message to both the project and project management that erred, as well as the projects and project management that did not, and it is fundamentally damaging to a vigorous, broadly based program of Earth and space science research and applications. MSL’s risk could have been significantly reduced and its costs could have been contained within only the Mars program – where all the benefits of MSL lie – had the launch date been allowed to sufficiently slip. Unfortunately, this recommended course was not taken.
One of your goals at NASA was to get SMD to do a better job controlling costs. What did your experience tell you about the primary challenges in that regard?
NASA’s cost increases are driven by an unwitting alliance, which begins when scientists and engineers – and sometimes even Congress – burden missions with content beyond what is affordable in their initial budget. It continues with managers and contractors who accept or encourage such assignments, expecting to be eventually bailed out. It is exacerbated by NASA managers who disguise the degree of cost increases that missions incur and then protect flagrant violators at the expense of innocent projects that are not in overrun. It culminates with scientists who won’t cut their losses, pleading victimization and Congress members who accept steep increases to locally based projects to protect local jobs. Cost control requires changes in behavior by all of these stakeholders.
Given the political realities of running NASA, what should the next administrator do to institute the kind of reform you say is needed?
There is no simple, magic fix. For example, the new administrator will have to sharply focus center, program and project leadership – all of them – on better cost estimating and better cost control, and will also have to focus the scientific community on protecting the larger program instead of defending individual errant projects. It’ll take a more serious commitment to stopping requirements creep, and it’ll also take negotiating agreements with the White House Office of Management Budget and Capitol Hill to better rein in overrunning projects. Those measures, along with feedback loops on project managers, principal investigators and center leaders who cannot control their costs, would be a good start. None of this will be easy, but it’s crucial to a healthier, more productive and better-run NASA in the future.
When you established the human suborbital research program earlier this year, was your main objective science or fostering a new commercial industry?
There are some very exciting research applications for example in suborbital microgravity and life sciences, and for upper atmospheric, ionospheric and auroral studies. But equally important were the opportunities to foster growth in a new and highly promising sector of the
aerospace industry, and to transform the equation about how Americans view and even experience spaceflight. When NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and his deputy, Shana Dale, enthusiastically backed this SMD initiative, they recognized these benefits and had the courage to help SMD take a leading role in this exciting new industry. I very much admire the courage and enthusiasm that Mike and Shana showed for this program.
Do you believe commercial models like Google Lunar X Prize can change the way NASA spends its science dollars?
Perhaps, but so far I have not seen NASA step up to the plate in a significant way. Perhaps this is something we’ll see in the future.
Do you think growth in the science budget will be restored over the next four years without siphoning funds from human spaceflight efforts?
Signals from the Obama campaign and a number of influential members of Congress would lead one to believe that steeper increases in NASA’s science effort – and its aeronautics effort – are likely in the next few years. Such increases need not damage the human spaceflight side of NASA. Not to beat a dead horse, but SMD alone spends almost $1 billion every year on cost overruns of one sort or another. Getting control of those would represent one way to finance more science without either new money or taking funding from other parts of NASA’s portfolio.
You’ve been mentioned as a possible NASA administrator under President-elect BarackObama. Would you do it?
I enjoyed my time at NASA and it was an honor to serve, but since leaving I’ve moved on to new challenges in the private sector. More importantly, in my eye there are better candidates for NASA administrator.