Press Release

House Science Committee Holds Hearing on Mars Missions

By SpaceRef Editor
April 21, 2000
Filed under


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News

Number 43: April 21, 2000

Earlier this month the House Science Committee held a hearing on
NASA’s Mars Programs, inviting Tom Young and John Casani to
testify on the findings contained in the “Mars Program
Independent Assessment Team Report.” This team was established
in early January following the failed Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars
Polar Lander, and Deep Space 2 microprobes missions.

House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) set
the tone for the hearing in his opening statement by citing the
work done by Young and his colleagues, saying, “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.”

Assessment team chairman Young told the committee that the
“faster, better, cheaper” approach was an effective concept that
should be continued, “if properly applied, which should be
underlined.” Casani, Chairman of the JPL Special Review Board,
emphasized that an “about face” from this approach would be
unwise. The witnesses, and the report, do not disagree with
“faster, better, cheaper,” but rather the way in which it was
implemented. They describe one “extremely challenged,” schedule
and a “lack of adequate margins.” Young cautioned that “mistakes
are going to be made,” explaining that “one mistake can be
mission catastrophic.” To avoid this, he recommended stronger
management oversight, better testing, and independent
verification. The problem, he later said, was not that a mistake
was made, but that it was not discovered.

Committee members expressed some doubts. Ranking Member Ralph
Hall (D-TX) said “faster, better, cheaper gives me a lot of
concern,” and asked if NASA and JPL were complacent or
overconfident because of past successes. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
declared it was “an easy way out” to see higher budgets and more
staffing as the solution. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) viewed it as
“faster, worse, cheaper,” and was incredulous that NASA did not
require the use of the metric system (so much so that he is
contemplating introducing legislation to require this.)

Young and Casani drew on the conclusions of the report from the
assessment team. A summary described specific mission problems,
such as “inadequate software design and systems test,”
underfunding of at least 30%, and the lack of telemetry to
provide entry, descent, and landing data for the Mars Polar
Lander. Most of the “lessons learned” involved deficient
project management. While serious, none of these problems are
unsolvable; the report’s final observation was, “All Identified
Flaws Are Correctable in a Timely Manner to Allow a Comprehensive
Mars Exploration Program to Successfully Continue.”

Chairman Sensenbrenner would seem to agree, in that in his
opening statement, while critical of NASA, he concluded “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.” He then
added, “and on to Mars.”

Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

SpaceRef staff editor.