At NASA, signs of too much scrimping

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last week scientists accidentally shook a $75 million NASA satellite 10 times harder than they were supposed to during a vibration test.

It cracked.

This incident followed NASA's discovery of rejected engine seals on the space shuttle - again. The seals were supposed to be thrown away, unlike the tanks for the International Space Station, which were fine but got tossed in a landfill anyway.

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That's the same space station that's so loud NASA may require astronauts to wear earplugs.

Three years ago, NASA gloried in the success of the Pathfinder Mars probe. Today critics complain it's an agency that couldn't run a dinner for two.

The March 28 release of a report on the disappearance of a $165 million spacecraft over Mars last December is only the latest to raise questions about NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy of operations.

It's unlikely the civilian space agency will go back to the days of concentrating on a few, more expensive projects. But congressional concern has reached such a level that administrator Dan Goldin may have to adopt some kind of management reforms.

"Over the past year, I have continually been amazed by the reports coming out of NASA about the mission failures and program delays," noted Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Commerce Committee and former presidential candidate, last week. "The extent of mismanagement noted in these reports is very startling."

Earlier this decade, the situation at the once-proud agency was very different. In 1993, Mars Observer disappeared, at the loss of almost $1 billion. With budgets tight, it was clear NASA couldn't afford many such failures in the future.

Faster and cheaper, anyway

Mr. Goldin's mantra of "faster, better, cheaper" was intended to get the agency to work more efficiently on a larger number of smaller projects, spreading risks and costs.

The Pathfinder probe symbolized the promise of this approach. Pathfinder seemed more cousin to a radio-control toy than the linear descendent of Apollo moon rockets. Yet its images of the Red Planet's surface thrilled audiences around the world.

The Goldin approach has produced an increase in the number of unmanned space missions, while sharply reducing development time and cost.

Thinly staffed

But in recent years, lower-level NASA scientists have increasingly complained that they are being squeezed too hard, and that the agency's work is suffering. Then last year, failures began mounting: Two Mars probes were lost, shuttle flights were delayed, and the Hubble Space Telescope was forced to temporarily shut down, among other letdowns.

NASA management ordered up a series of reviews. In general, they have pointed to a loss of talent, poor oversight of contractors, and cost-cutting as major reasons for the agency's troubles. The Mars Climate Orbiter review board said that the simple failure to convert measurements into metric units misdirected the craft and likely sent it skipping into space last September. NASA should have caught the mistake, said the report.

"Even now, NASA may be operating on the edge of high, unacceptable risk on some projects," said the study.

The reports paint a picture of an agency that is not so much badly managed as thinly managed, says space policy expert John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.

"When you look at what went wrong with the Climate Orbiter, there were eight or nine specific mistakes - all of them attributable to understaffing," says Mr. Pike.

Aiming to launch a larger number of cheaper space missions still makes sense in today's era, Pike says. That is a sentiment with which the just-released report on the failure of Mars Polar Lander agrees: "One lesson that should not be learned is to reject out of hand all the management and implementation approaches used by these projects."

The Polar Lander was last heard from in December as it neared the Red Planet surface. Any number of technical reasons could explain its disappearance, according to the study. The most likely is a software error that caused an accidental shutdown of the spacecraft's engine as it descended.

The Lander's 12 thrusters were supposed to cease firing when they sensed the jolt of landing. But the craft's computer "brain" may have interpreted the vibration caused by the automatic extension of landing legs as this jolt - resulting in a plunge to destruction.

Among the report's lessons learned: Experienced project management is essential, and the unique constraints of deep-space missions require a more adequate margin of risk.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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