Retooling NASA’s “Faster-Better-Cheaper” Approach to Space Exploration

By Keith Cowing
January 15, 2001
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Dan Goldin

In what could be one of his last opportunities to address the NASA work force, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin spoke about retooling NASA’s “Faster-Better-Cheaper” approach to space exploration – and dropped some hints about his personal future. The occasion was a webcast held last week devoted to a discussion of the recently released NASA Integrated Action Team (NIAT) Report.

Dan Goldin’s take after almost 9 years on the job? “Faster-Better-Cheaper” works fine – it just needs a few tweaks – adjustments derived from hard-earned lessons about how NOT to land on Mars.

According to a NASA press release, “the NIAT report results from an effort started in March by the NASA Chief Engineer [Brian Keegan] to develop an integrated plan addressing recommendations from reports on the Mars program, space shuttle wiring issues and a generic assessment of NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” practices, and formulating actions for improvement from an agency perspective.”

NASA had a specific target in mind for this audience: “the audience for this event should include Headquarters senior leaders, key members of the program/project management and engineering community, and other interested members of our workforce.” All told the audience was rather disappointing: only 550 people participated from NASA’s centers and approximately 150 were present in the NASA Headquarters auditorium – less than 5% of NASA’s overall workforce.

After 20 minutes of taped presentations, participants from across the agency were able to submit their questions to Dan Goldin and Frank Keegan. Goldin noted that he had asked for the NIAT report after the back-to-back Mars mission losses in 1999. Since that time, according to Goldin, there have been no mission failures. Goldin said that 60-70% of the NIAT report’s recommendations could be implemented immediately. Urging everyone in the agency to read the report, Goldin said that there should be open discussions at all management levels about the report and how its findings and recommendations could be implemented.

According to Goldin “Faster-Better-Cheaper is a resounding success because the NASA team has responded so well. We now have five times as many launches as we used to. While it once took eight years to complete a mission we now do it in five”. Goldin defended Faster-Cheaper-Better by noting that out of $20 billion worth of missions only $500 million worth of hardware had been lost – a “95% success rate”. Saying that he offered no apologies for what NASA had done he asked ” What if we had kept it the old way? Should we have replaced Mars Observer with another $1 billion spacecraft?”

When asked if the change in Administrations would have an effect on the implementation of the report Goldin said, with a laugh ” I don’t know. I don’t think people should worry about transitions in power. I am not concerned.” He then said that Faster-Better-Cheaper should be made more applicable in the future than it has been.

One recurring theme in Goldin’s comments was communication and the need for individuals to feel free to surface issues to management. Goldin made repeated references to the fact that employees should feel free to raise issues without fear of retribution. “The strength of this agency is its people – people who are empowered are not afraid of retribution.” One example Goldin cited was a recent shuttle launch where employees using binoculars spotted an errant bolt between the Shuttle and its External Tank. They recommended that the launch be scrubbed. Goldin said he was proud of these people and that he gave them an award for their alert actions.

Goldin said that there needs to be “accountability with management. There should be no fear – manager should not play the blame game by pointing a finger and saying ‘you screwed up’ “. Goldin continued by saying that “anyone who feels that they are afraid of management should talk to Fred Gregory, Dan Mulville – or me. One thing this agency cannot tolerate is one where people bully other people.”

When asked if downsizing at NASA had any effect upon programs so as to cause mission failures, Goldin responded reminded everyone understood that NASA was going to have to downsize. He spoke of the fact that Congress came within one vote of canceling the Space Station and that President Clinton called him over to the White House to tell him that NASA needed to change.

Goldin took comfort in noting that there had been “no forced layoffs – attrition was used instead” When downsizing was being implemented Goldin admitted that he did not expect that the reduction in overall skill mix and number of personnel would have the effects it eventually had on the agency. While not openly saying that any mission failures were the result of downsizing Goldin did imply that they might have been a factor by saying “guilty as charged.”

“We want failures. If you don’t, you have lofty enough goals.” As has been the case on numerous occasion, Goldin took personal responsibility for the Mars mission failures “I stand by our employees. I want out employees to pick themselves up and do it again.” He spoke of how he went to JPL after the two failures and tried to lift spirits among the employees and not assigning blame to any one.

When asked about software and the increased time and cost associated with it, Goldin warned that ten years ago 5% of the cost of a spacecraft was software. It is now 20%. It may well be 50-75% in the future. Goldin spoke of having “brittle systems” that were very reliant on software and the need to develop much more flexible ways of operating spacecraft.

Goldin spoke of safety in the agency and that his priorities were first the astronauts who fly in space. Second (but of equal concern) are the people on the ground who support humans and unmanned missions. Lastly, he s “are robots.” Noting that human spaceflight is inherently risky, Goldin said “if you want a 100% guarantee of safety the only way to get that in human spaceflight is to never climb into a rocket”.

When asked if recommendations made in the NIAT report will result in budget growth Goldin replied “adding money to a program should be a last resort.” Goldin was asked if Faster-Better-Cheaper applied to all missions NASA does. He replied that Faster-Better-Cheaper should not be limited only to small programs. He cited an example in the Shuttle program whereby personnel had been reduced by a third while accomplishing a three-fold decrease in in-flight anomalies and 60% fewer technical launch scrubs between 1993 and 2001.

He admitted that cuts at KSC were more than were prudent and as a result of the committee chaired by ARC Center Director Harry McDonald, new hires were being made to fill in areas of need. As for other large programs, Goldin claimed that Chandra and Cassini “would have been cancelled if we had not changed out way of doing business.”

A participant asked Goldin if there would be more money forthcoming for training . Goldin again replied that “the key issue is not dollars. The real issue is whether management will take the time to understand the real issues raised by the reports. I don’t think NASA spends enough money on training – but that should be part of the overall way NASA does missions.”

With regards to mentoring and communication between management and employees, Goldin spoke of a need for “empathy on the part of leadership towards their employees and that managers should focus on the relationship between a supervisor and their employees.” Goldin said that he wanted to see NASA managers focus on transferring training knowledge toward the day to day work environment. “I use life as a laboratory” Goldin said.

In reflecting upon NASA culture, Goldin said that NASA was different in its tenacity “We take on things that other people would not – and we hold onto things when others would have already let go.” He went on to say that “the track record of this agency is second to none.”

Goldin spoke of an inherent tendency for government “to desire a hierarchy. We tried to set up horizontal networks.” He then encouraged NASA employees “not to worry about bureaucracy – we need to get away from the established hierarchy”. Goldin also said that “NASA needs to work on the overlap between field centers” and that this overlap “needs to be trimmed further than it already has”.

Goldin then paused – with visible tears in his eyes. He said “I am a little frustrated – I thought that I’d have a better chance at breaking down these barriers … you people are wonderful.”

He closed by saying that “the NASA team is outstanding. I admired it before I came to work here – and now I am here as its leader. You don’t need this report. You know what to go out and do.”

Related Links

  • 21 December 2000: Enhancing Mission Success – A Framework for the Future, A Report by the NASA Chief Engineer and the NASA Integrated Action Team (2 MB Acrobat)

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