NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

By Keith Cowing
September 15, 2003
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NASA Responds to the Columbia Accident Report: Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

If there is one phrase that characterizes former Administrator Goldin’s approach to running NASA, it was the phrase “Faster – Better – Cheaper”. While no one could ever seem to explain this management mantra such that all three terms were given equal importance, it soon became clear what it really meant to implement FBC was less money. Indeed, the ‘faster’ and ‘better’ you were at cutting costs, the more bragging rights you could exert. The twin Mars mission disasters in 1999 provide a classic illustration.

In the September 1999 edition of JPL’s in-house newspaper “JPL Universe”, just before two JPL-managed spacecraft slammed into Mars, the flight operations manager for the Mars Climate Orbiter said: “It’s going further and faster with fewer people and with a smaller budget. If we’re successful, I think we’ll raise the bar on the whole faster, better, cheaper mantra to a new level – to a level that’s not been attained by anyone else.”

The CAIB took a rather jaundiced eye at NASA’s cost cutting – specifically with regard to the Space Shuttle Program, citing this one quote that served to typify Goldin’s attitude regarding cost cutting: “When critics would raise the possibility that such cuts were going to affect safety the CAIB notes “Goldin described himself as “sharp-edged” and could often be blunt. He rejected the criticism that he was sacrificing safety in the name of efficiency. In 1994 he told an audience at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “When I ask for the budget to be cut, I’m told it’s going to impact safety on the Space Shuttle … I think that’s a bunch of crap.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) made her view on FBC rather blunt “FBC should be thrown in the waste basket.” The following day, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) said that wanted to “echo what a [Sen. Hutchinson] said yesterday: Let’s throw out faster better cheaper in the garbage can.”

Members of Congress are not alone in condemning FBC. A March 2003 report by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO states:

“Using FBC as a way to contract out services and move more of NASA’s resources into the private sector, Goldin eliminated much of the civil service infrastructure that monitored and held technical knowledge of the service and products contractors provided and oversaw NASA’s safe and successful operation. Critics of FBC always doubted NASA’s ability to fulfill FBC without sacrificing either the “faster,” the “better”, or the “cheaper”. Concerns became widespread after the highly publicized Mars missions failed in 1999. Further concerns arose as NASA’s workforce reductions and increased contractor workforce, jeopardized the safety of space shuttle operations. Enough evidence existed in failed missions, close calls, and government reports that suggested the tradeoffs of FBC were inexperienced and reduced workforce capability; increased safety risks; and minor oversights that resulted in lost spacecraft.”

In the aftermath of the Columbia accident, Sean O’Keefe has made it very clear that people will need to be hired back to the agency so as to rebuild the skill mix that has eroded – or been deliberately shed – over the past decade. One has to wonder if and remnants of the Goldin era mantra the “Faster – Better – Cheaper” will remain on people’s minds. After yet another loss of life, and the CAIB’s report, certainly the term “Better” will eclipse the others.

The Balance between government and contractor responsibility

The largest cost at NASA is people. If you want to cut NASA’s costs you cut the number of people you have. Eventually, if cut enough, you’ll find yourself in a situation where your civil service workforce cannot perform some responsibilities. The only place left to vest such roles is in the contractor workforce. This is not inherently a bad thing to do – but when it is done, great care must be taken that there is residual expertise within the government to allow suitable oversight and management of the contractor workforce to continue.

On September 2nd, Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) noted the repeated cuts made by former Administrator Dan Goldin. Part of this effort was placed on Goldin by the Clinton Administration. The other impetus was Goldin’s pushing of his Faster-Better-Cheaper mode of doing business – one which was usually interpreted as cutting costs. Again, cutting the number of people is an excellent way to cut costs. Of course, fewer people literally means fewer people. To be certain having too many people on a task can cause problems. But not having enough people with the right skills can be even worse.

Lautenberg raised the issue of Faster-Better-Cheaper with Adm. Gehman and asked him to comment on a report by the IFPTE, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. AFL-CIO, which said that 1,700 civil servants were called upon to manage a contractor workforce number 18,000.

Gehman replied “we looked at this hard. We interviewed hundreds of people. We did not find cases where contractors took shortcuts. The CAIB did find – and it is in the report – that the management level that the program decided to contract seemed to be a little too high. It seemed that they were contracting out management the government had to make a decision they no longer had the technical expertise to do so because that function was now being done by a contractor. It does not seem to be that government person has technical knowledge any more because they contracted it out.”

The IFPTE report goes on to paint a rather unflattering picture of NASA’s downsizing and outsourcing over the past decade – with a special focus on Space Shuttle Processing, a task carried out by the United Space Alliance (USA) – a joint endeavor between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin created specifically (under significant pressure from NASA) to manage Shuttle processing and operations. The report closes by saying “With a chorus of warnings about the dangers of contracting out a manned space vehicle that offers little room for a safety lapse, presidential administrations, Congressional budget appropriations committees and NASA senior managers that pushed for lower costs over successful operation, may also have to face scrutiny for their decisions that reduced the effectiveness of NASA.”


Ground the Shuttle

Beyond the Shuttle

Separating People From Cargo

– Farewell to Faster – Better – Cheaper

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SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.