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NASA Failures Blamed on Policies

Space: The agency worked too cheaply and quickly on major projects like Mars Lander, report says.

March 14, 2000|USHA LEE McFARLING | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

NASA took undue risks by working on major space missions too quickly and too cheaply, an independent investigation commissioned in the wake of an embarrassing string of failed missions concluded Monday.

The report blames recent failures, including the loss of the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter last year, on poor communication and mistakes in engineering and management that might have been avoided with better management, fewer shortcuts and more realistic deadlines and budgets.

"The current mission failure rate is too high and must be reduced," said the report, written by Tony Spear, a retired National Aeronautics and Space Administration official who successfully led the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission. "Failing due to mistakes is not tolerable."

A second report, also released Monday, offered a scathing assessment of the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter, specifically blaming poor communication and a lack of teamwork for the simple math error that doomed the $125-million craft.

Yet both reports stood firmly behind the "faster, better, cheaper" approach--if it is properly managed. The approach, introduced by NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin in 1992, marked a shift away from running a few large, costly missions to running more smaller, cheaper missions.

"Of all the hundreds of people interviewed, outside and inside NASA, no one said we should turn back," the report said.

Outside experts on the space program, who were not involved in the report, agreed that the "faster, better" approach should not be abandoned, but should be overhauled.

"It should be faster and better, but not quite so cheap," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "Doing it cheaply translates into people taking technical risks that turn around and bite you."

John Pike, who analyzes the space program for the Federation of American Scientists, said both reports failed to address exactly how NASA should balance its broad ambitions with its limited funding.

"They've basically had a champagne appetite on a beer budget," he said. "I don't see they've found a solution to that."

Yet another, much anticipated independent report--this one a detailed assessment of recent space failures and recommendations for future missions--is expected to provide those recommendations later this month.

Early versions circulating in the space exploration community indicate that the report will urge NASA to lower its ambitions and plan for fewer missions, unless the agency's funding--now about $14 billion--is dramatically increased.

"There's going to be more conservatism, and there will be some slowdown," said Louis Friedmann, executive director of the Pasadena-based space advocacy group, the Planetary Society. "The question is, will the pendulum swing too far?"

NASA officials also face a Senate hearing next week on staffing and management problems that contributed to recent mission failures and may affect the safety of astronauts.

Many of the failures, said one planetary scientist, are not the fault of a "better, cheaper, faster" strategy, but the end result of a severe cost-cutting effort by Goldin in 1995 to reduce staff who oversee missions at NASA headquarters in Washington.

"The evisceration of NASA headquarters kept them from being able to ride herd on centers like [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena] and resulted directly in the fiasco we see today," said John Kerridge, a planetary scientist at UC San Diego.

Monday's reports highlighted the following problems at NASA:

* Management attention was diluted over a large number of missions.

* Many project managers did not have the necessary experience and training.

* Projects were rushed because of fixations on cost and short-term gains.

* Realistic assessments of risk were not made.

* It has been difficult for NASA to attract, retain and motivate qualified engineers and scientists.

The fate of future Mars missions hangs in the balance. The next mission, scheduled for 2001, includes a lander nearly identical to the one that was recently lost.

NASA officials have said it is unlikely they will launch that lander without significantly redesigning it. The next opportunity to launch spacecraft to Mars comes in 2003.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Faster and Cheaper, but Not Better

1999 was a year of many failures and a few notable successes for NASA.

FAILURES

Wide-Field Infrared Explorer--A $246-million infrared telescope used to study the history of star formation was declared a total loss shortly after launch in March when the telescope failed.

Mars Polar Lander--The $165-million lander was to study the climate history and water resources on Mars. It was last heard from Dec. 3 and has been declared officially lost. Its fate remains unknown.

Deep Space 2--These $29-million probes were to be driven deep into the Martian surface to analyze soil and search for water vapor. They were also lost Dec. 3.

Mars Climate Orbiter--The $125-million craft would have studied the climate of the Red Planet and served as a communications relay for the lander. It was lost on Sept. 23 because of a navigational error blamed on a mistake in converting English to metric units.

Hubble Space Telescope--Several gyroscopes on the $3-billion telescope failed, causing a temporary shutdown in mid-November. Space shuttle astronauts later fixed the problem.

SUCCESSES

* Chandra X-ray observatory space telescope launched.

* First Docking of space shuttle with International Space Station.

* Images from Hubble continue to increase understanding of the universe.

* Mars Global Surveyor turns in first 3-D global map of Mars.

* Terra spacecraft launched to study Earth's climate.

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