Status Report

Statement by Howard McCurdy before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation United States Senate January 28, 2004

By SpaceRef Editor
January 28, 2004
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Given at a Full CommitteeHearing: National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Future Space Mission Wednesday, January 28 2004 – 9:30 AM – SR-253

The Testimony of Dr. Howard McCurdy Professor, Department of Public Administration, School of Public Affairs, American University

I am not here to give my personal views on the desirability of undertaking the space flight initiatives set out in the president’s speech on January 14, 2004, refocusing the purpose of the nation’s human space flight activities. Rather, I will comment on whether the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as presently constituted is capable of carrying out that initiative.

In my judgment, based on eighteen years of studying NASA’s organizational practices, it is not. The practices associated with human flight over the past decades have left NASA ill-prepared to undertake a focused exploration program, especially one that addressess the cost constraints imposed by the president’s directive. Yet this need not cause despair. NASA employees have overcome similar difficulties in the past and Congress can encourage them to do so again in the future.

In essence, my message is one of cautious optimism. Accomplishment of the mission is not possible with the NASA that exists today, but the fact that the agency has transformed itself in the past encourages us to believe that transformation can occur again.

Why NASA is Not Prepared

For thirty-four years, a succession of leaders in the field of space exploration have called upon public officials to give NASA purpose and direction. As a science and engineering organization, relying upon project management techniques, NASA works best when the people implementing national space policy have a clear vision of their ultimate objective, the time available to accomplish those objectives, and the various constraints such as cost under which they must operate.

From 1961 through the landings on the Moon, the human space flight program operated under such mandates. The purpose and timetable established in President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961, speech provided focus for America’s civil space effort and imposed discipline on the new space agency.

As Americans prepared for the lunar landings, NASA officials and other government leaders proposed to extend Kennedy’s vision. Much like the current initiative, they called for a post-Apollo space effort focused on the moon and Mars, bolstered by an energetic space science program. The report of the Space Task Group was presented in September, 1969, followed in later years by a succession of reports calling for much the same thing. In March, 1970, President Richard Nixon rejected the report of the Space Task Group, thereby initiating three decades of drift in which leaders of NASA’s human space flight program were obliged to operate without long-term focus and direction.

In response, leaders of the space community adopted an incremental approach to human flight. They pursued elements of their long-range vision in succession, one at a time, without reference to an overarching goal. First they sought to complete a reusable space shuttle, originally conceived as a means of transferring people to and from an Earth-orbiting space station. Then they started work on the space station. As the date for declaring the space station “core complete” approached, NASA officials requested permission to pursue the next logical step in their long-remembered but never-approved long range plan.

Thirty years of incremental drift have had a dysfunctional effect on NASA’s human space flight effort. Without a long-term goal to provide purpose for new human flight initiatives, NASA officials and their supporters have been obliged to create broad political coalitions as a means for getting new initiatives approved. The programs emerging from these coalitions have contained so many objectives that NASA officials have accomplished few of their specific goals.

The NASA space shuttle, for example, was designed among its many objectives to carry people to and from an Earth orbiting space station, transport the components of that station to space, serve as a “space truck” for commercial payloads (some carrying upper stage rockets attached to payloads headed for geosynchronous orbit), deliver military reconnaissance satellites, deliver and repair (and possibly return) space telescopes, and serve as a short-duration micro-gravity research laboratory. The shuttle fleet had to be reusable, capable of launch up to 50 times per year, and cut the cost of launch operations to about $10 million per mission.

As members of the Columbia accident investigation board observed, the existence of so many conflicting objectives severely compromised NASA’s ability to build a safe and reliable vehicle. “The increased complexity of a Shuttle designed to be all things to all people,” board members wrote, “created inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set at the start.” The most serious mistake that NASA officials made in developing the vehicle dealt not with the design of any particular component, “but rather with the premise of the vehicle itself.” (CAIB report, p. 23)

NASA officials undertook a similar approach to the design of the International Space Station. They appealed to astronomers, people interested in space science, advocates of a return to the Moon, commercial interests hoping to manufacture micro-gravity products, communication satellite companies, international partners, and the U.S. military. Early space station designs included hangers for satellite repair, micro-gravity research laboratories, mounts for observational instruments, pallets for scientific instruments, and two large keels within which large spacecraft bound for deep space missions could be prepared. Further confounding these objectives, NASA officials estimated that they could develop such a multi-functional facility for only $8.8 billion.

Space station advocates learned that the political coalitions necessary to win approval for such initiatives were much easier to construct than the actual facilities. While attractive for building political support, the various station functions proved technically incompatible and impossible to develop within the proposed cost. As a consequence, NASA officials spent the entire ten years set for construction of the station (1984-1994), as well as the $8.8 billion cost estimate, redesigning the facility and reducing its scope.

For thirty-four years, officials in the human space flight community have urged political leaders to adopt long-range space goals. Yet NASA officials during this period grew accustomed to the practices necessary to operate in an objective-free atmosphere. The effect of this cultural shift was readily apparent in the agency’s response to President George H. W. Bush’s 1989 proposal for a human Space Exploration Initiative focused on the Moon and Mars. Following the proposal, White House officials directed NASA to prepare an enabling plan. The study that agency leaders produced disappointment. To people outside NASA, the study seemed more like an exercise designed to protect existing agency programs and restore the health of ailing field centers than an opportunity to renew the long-term vision of space.

NASA officials treated the Space Exploration Initiative as a healing balm, an ointment applied to the institutional members as a means to get well again. If NASA officials take a similar approach to the current Mars initiative, with its severe cost constraints, it will produce a similar result. The initiative will certainly die.

During the period of institutional drift, NASA underwent additional changes that similarly compromised its capability to carry out complex human space flight activities in a reliable way. These alterations are well documented in the reports of the presidential commission that investigated the space shuttle Challenger accident and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Briefly stated, the reports concluded that NASA’s organizational culture had changed in detrimental ways. The agency had gone from an institution capable of meeting its goals to one in which human space flight officials struggled to achieve reliability, cost and schedule objectives which the agency operated.

Cultures consist of the assumptions that people make as they go about their work. As a illustration of how much the NASA human space flight culture has changed, consider the follow point. NASA officials and their contractors in the early decades of space flight operated under the assumption that the agency would not launch a spacecraft until its designers could prove that they were ready to fly. In both the Challenger and Columbia accidents, NASA officials required concerned individuals to prove that spacecraft were not ready to fly (or land) in spite of visible safety concerns.

Organizational practices such as these take root over many decades. Similarly, reforms require many years to become imbedded in the minds and habits of agency employees. Organization cultures take a long time to change. They deteriorate slowly and they revive themselves only after lengthy adjustment periods.

Hope From History

Confrontations with reality need not be a source of despair. In fact, the first step toward institutional recovery consists of acknowledging the situation as it exists. NASA’s human space flight effort has existed without focus and discipline for more than thirty years, leaving a legacy that will be difficult to change. Yet this is not impossible. It has happened before and it can happen again.

In the Spring of 1961, when President Kennedy challenged Americans to race to the Moon, NASA was totally unprepared to carry out the mandate. Congress had created NASA three years earlier by melding the research laboratories within the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with agencies like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). People from component agencies had great technical skill, but absolutely no experience managing activities on the scale of Project Apollo. They were accustomed to managing small research projects, not large-scale operations. The institutional habits of people who had inhabited the forty-three year old NACA were well set, as were the practices of employees working within the ABMA under Wernher von Braun’s rocket team.

NASA officials at that time did not understand how to manage large programs. They did not have enough people; they did not have enough money. Existing field centers were independent and uncooperative. The United States lacked the technology to fly to the Moon. No American astronaut had ever flown in orbit, much less engaged in rendezvous and docking. No one knew how to get to the Moon and back. Leading strategies such as Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Direct Ascent were either technically infeasible or impossible to complete by the decade’s end. When he made the suggestion that the agency concentrate all of its resources on accomplishing the lunar goal, NASA’s head of human space flight was fired for what was then viewed as intemperate remarks.

Yet eight years Americans returned safely from the Moon. During those eight years, NASA reorganized itself twice, forcing the leaders of previously independent field centers to submit to a central coordinating office in Washington, D.C. To oversee Project Apollo, NASA officials imported management experts from the Air Force ballistic missile program, the primary repository of people who understood large-scale systems management. NASA employees and their contractors perfected new technologies, such as hydrogen-fueled rockets and orbital rendezvous. They revised organizational procedures after the loss of three astronauts in a space capsule fire during a launch center ground test, a critical exercise in institutional learning. Like the current Administrator, the person who oversaw NASA during this period was an expert in management and finance. Neither an astronaut nor an engineer, James Webb was a budget director and President of the American Society for Public Administration.

President Kennedy’s May, 1961, speech was a transforming event. It transformed NASA from an agency of technical experts into an institution capable of implementing extraordinarily complex space flight activities. The lessons learned through human space flight quickly spilled over onto the space science side, where individuals carried out the great planetary and space telescope missions of the decades that followed.

Recently, NASA has transformed its space science activities. Space scientists have not suffered through the same drift that afflicts human space flight activities. Space science missions have been focused; objectives more apparent. Technology advances in areas such as imaging and automation have occurred. New management techniques have been perfected, some significantly different than the large-scale systems management practices that propelled the success (and the cost) of Project Apollo.

Consider this fact as an illustration of the transformations occurring in space science. Stated in the inflation adjusted value of today’s dollars, the 1976 Viking mission to Mars cost $4 billion. For that sum, NASA successfully placed two landers on the surface of Mars. The Mars Exploration Rovers that arrived this January, 2004, are carrying out their missions for $820 million. Even acknowledging that funds for Project Viking also purchased two orbiters (total cost in today’s dollars about $800 million), the difference is dramatic. NASA space scientists have learned how to fly for a fraction of the cost of previous endeavors, using technologies that have advanced enormously.

In searching for the means to mobilize an aggressive exploration program on Mars, NASA officials can turn to themselves for the necessary experience. The lessons exist within the agency, both today and historically. The Apollo flights to the Moon cost $25 billion in the currency of the time. That translates into a total cost of approximately $175 billion today. During the 1960s, NASA officials were told to achieve reliable space flight in a crash program with an impossibly tight schedule. For the current initiative, government leaders propose to loosen the schedule and the milestones associated with it, but to operate under severe cost constraints. In practical terms, NASA officials are being asked to fly reliably to the Moon and beyond for a fraction of the cost of Project Apollo.

On its face, the task may seem impossible. Nonetheless, NASA officials have encountered similar challenges in the past and prevailed. They overcame analogous difficulties in the 1960s and they have achieved low-cost innovations in their robotics and space science programs.

Lessons for the Future

Although NASA employees are allowed a great deal of technical discretion in carrying out space flight programs, they do not operate in a vacuum. They respond to the nature of national space policy and the guidance they receive from Congress and the White House. The transformation of NASA’s human space flight activities will require a number of important changes, ones that can be encouraged by congress and the executive. In general, transformation will require NASA to become more like the agency that sent Americans to the Moon and robots to Mars and less like the agency that fumbled the development of the space shuttle, International Space Station, and Space Exploration Initiative. It will require the installation of cost discipline, the resurrection of a culture of reliability, the restoration of discipline and focus, and the merging of robotic and human capabilities. These will be major changes, wide in scope and particular in detail.

To encourage the transformation of NASA, members of Congress might consider the following practices.

1. Be very clear about goals. Mission ambiguity and wiggle-room are the enemies of discipline and focus within NASA. For example, the mission as contained in the presidential directive does not seem to include a lunar base as an intermediate step to Mars. The moon is to be used only insofar as it contributes to the exploration of Mars, as a test bed or proving ground for deep space technologies. Additionally, the purpose of the program is not to land humans on Mars. Rather, the purpose as expressed thus far is the exploration of Mars using humans and robots. Experience tells us that the optimal mix of robotic and human flight technology is likely to change significantly as the mission evolves, discouraging a definition that presupposes a specific role for humans in advance.

2. Make cost constraint a mission goal. During Project Apollo, meeting the “end of the decade” deadline imposed an objective as important to the definition of mission success as landing astronauts on the Moon and bringing them safely home. The deadline repeatedly served to focus attention on necessary tasks; it strongly influenced technical decisions such as the one to engage in “all up” testing of the Saturn V. In NASA’s robotic and satellite programs, cost constraint has risen as a mission goal to a place commensurate with science objectives. NASA employees have repeatedly demonstrated that they can achieve multiple objectives – reliability plus cost or schedule goals – so long as those objectives are clearly stated.

3. Restore in-house technically capability to the human space flight program. NASA’s secret weapon for completing Project Apollo arose from a combination of strong in-house technical capability with systems management techniques imported from outside. Many people agree that NASA has lost too much of its in-house technical capability, especially for human space flight. Agency employees who spend most of their time monitoring contracts cannot maintain the technical edge necessary to explore Mars. To produce outstanding results, they need to work with flight hardware. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in both the human and robotic flight programs, most recently within the Mars exploration effort. Successful missions, such as Pathfinder, have been led by persons with extensive “hands on” knowledge of spacecraft components. Experience suggests that 30 percent of the work (and money) associated with the program should be retained in-house.

4. Insist that NASA keep the program as simple as possible. When complexity rises, so do overall costs — often exponentially. Complexity can arise from demands for international cooperation or the desire to spread work among many field centers. These demands are often irrelevant to mission objectives. Complexity can also result from the extensive use of formal systems management techniques. While these techniques are useful for promoting reliability, they are being supplanted in government and industry by leaner project teams whose members utilize less complicated forms of management. These management reforms, used on Project Pathfinder, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, and the Mars Exploration Rovers, allow project leaders to meet technically challenging mission goals while severely restraining mission cost.

5. Reward NASA officials when they make tough decisions. The restoration of focus and discipline will require difficult choices affecting existing installations and future programs. The recent history of human space flight suggests that agency officials may be reluctant to undertake needed change. Obstacles to change, moreover, may be more difficult to surmount than ones encountered in the past. The people managing Project Apollo built an organization from the ground up, expanding NASA’s budget five-fold and its internal work force by a factor of three. Proprietors of the current mission must work with an agency that will not be allowed to grow. If they sense that they are being punished for hard decisions, they may be reluctant to undertake needed change.

When planning for Project Apollo got underway in 1961, many of the participants had strong views about the mission. Some wanted to build orbiting space stations, and suggested that the expedition leave from a rendezvous point in low-Earth orbit. Others wanted to build enormous rockets, and recommended a strategy called direct ascent. Different centers wanted to be involved in different ways. An engineer from NASA’s Langley Research Center tried to explain that America could not reach the moon by the end of the decade unless it utilized a spacecraft that remained in lunar orbit while two astronauts piloted another vehicle to the surface of the moon.

At first, the idea seemed preposterous. The United States had not conducted a successful rendezvous in Earth orbit, much less one around the Moon. More significantly, the idea upset the plans of people with different agendas. The engineer persisted. “Do we want to get to the Moon or not,” he asked. The question silenced critics. The discipline of the mission forced people to forgo vested interests and work toward their common goal.

In a similar fashion, vested interests must fall if people in the space community seriously pursue this new goal. If they do, this new objective will be a transforming event, just as other great objectives were before it. If and when the United States completes the missions set out this year, the agency that does the work will bear little resemblance to the agency that exists today – just as the institution that landed humans on the Moon in 1969 hardly resembled the agency that received President John F. Kennedy’s famous challenge in May, 1961.

Dr. Howard McCurdy is professor of public affairs and chair of the public administration department at American University in Washington, D.C. An expert on space policy, he recently authored Faster, Better, Cheaper, a critical analysis of cost-cutting initiatives in the U.S. space program. An earlier study of NASA’s organizational culture, Inside NASA, won the 1994 Henry Adams prize for that year’s best history on the federal government. He has also written Space and the American Imagination and co-edited Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership. His work appears in scholarly journals such as Public Administration Review and Space Policy. He is often consulted by the media on public policy issues and has appeared on national news outlets such as the Jim Lehrer News Hour, National Public Radio, and NBC Nightly News. Professor McCurdy received his bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Washington and his doctorate from Cornell University.

SpaceRef staff editor.