Slipshod Line in the Sand

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I
have always been fascinated by space flight, and watched with great
interest the flight of Space Shuttle Discovery last July on NASA-TV.
I have taken great interest in any human activity in space. I especially
enjoy watching space walks. Viewing video taken from a helmet camera
allows me to vicariously float around space with the astronauts.

At
the same time, I realize there are problems with America’s space
program. On August 18, Wired News published an article
entitled “NASA Ripped for Slipshod Work” which reported on observations
by members of NASA’s Return to Flight Task Group. Wired stated:
As
early as September 2003, NASA told the task force that some technical
work was not being performed because it could not meet the launch
schedule, the seven members said. “Too often we heard the lament:
‘If only we’d known we were down for two years we would have approached
this very differently.'”

Discovery astronaut Andrew Thomas said Wednesday that having so
many launch dates was indeed “a serious issue.” “There was a line
drawn in the sand for a launch date which was so close, actually
it was a few months away, that it didn’t give people time to do
the work the way that was needed,” Thomas said. “It would have
been better to just say all right, the launch is three years or
two years away, that’s what you should plan for.”

Yet,
this should come as no surprise. In my own experience in the aerospace
industry, I have seen this happen on projects involving unreasonably
compressed schedules. The delivery date eventually slipped because
of unforeseen problems or tasks are trimmed in order to meet the
schedule. To be sure, this is not limited to the government, it
also occurs on marketing driven technology projects in the private
sector, especially in publicly traded companies (but that is for
another time).

How
are schedules produced? Given a set of tasks or requirements, project
managers ask senior engineers to estimate a schedule to complete
the tasks and fulfill the requirements, which they make based on
previous experience performing similar tasks. They may add some
contingency time to address unforeseen problems. The manager may
trim tasks or time. Such trimming may be reasonable because of budgetary
constraints or the necessity to deliver by a certain deadline. This
deadline may have a practical basis but it also may be an arbitrary
“line in the sand.” It should go without saying, deadlines serve
a useful purpose. They set the bounds within which engineers and
technicians can accomplish their tasks and help them plan their
work to complete the project within budget. However, deadlines must
be rational and reasonable rather than arbitrary and idealistic.

The
Wired article draws from the NASA Return
to Flight Task Group’s
(RTF TG) final
report
, released shortly after the flight of Discovery, which
was supposed to have flown the “safest,
most dependable tank NASA has ever produced
.” The report contains
an annex
with observations of the Task Group members, including a critique
by a minority group of seven members. The minority group points
out that NASA made unreasonable commitments to return the shuttle
to flight by March 2003. That was twelve months after the loss of
Columbia and a little over six months after the Columbia Accident
Investigation Board determined that the loss was caused by a chunk
of foam breaking loose from the external tank, striking and damaging
the wing. The seven members state:

As
we reviewed the return-to-flight effort, it was apparent that
there were numerous instances when an opportunity was missed to
implement the best solution because of this false schedule pressure.
As early as September 2003 the RTF TG was told that specific technical
activities were not being performed because they could not meet
the schedule. Too often we heard the lament: “If only we’d known
we were down for two years we would have approached this very
differently…”
They later state:

Instead,
it appears to us that senior management selected launch dates
based on non-technical concerns, ultimately placing unnecessary
and unrecoverable restrictions on teams working return-to-flight
hardware development. In addition, several important requirements
– such as the critical damage and debris size – were
scheduled to be finalized at [the Flight Readiness Review], far
too late to influence the products being provided by the External
Tank Project, OBSS [sensor on the extension boom used to inspect
the Shuttle tiles and wings] and other systems. In addition, the
constant setting of a launch date only a few months away never
allowed the development efforts to take full advantage of the
ultimate two-year stand-down; we heard several times that different
solutions to various problems would have been selected if launch
had not been 90 days away.
NASA management
set an unrealistic and highly idealistic return to flight schedule.
Engineers attempted to implement solutions that could fit in that
schedule, but when it could not meet the original deadline, management
slipped the launch date, and slipped it again. The launch date slipped
fourteen times. Fifteen times if you include a scrub shortly before
launch caused by a sensor malfunction. Two and a half years and
one and a half billion dollars later, NASA launched Discovery with
the safest external tank ever produced. But it too shed a dangerous
chunk of foam that narrowly missed the wing.

Government projects get money… lots of money. At the same time,
these projects are high profile, and because they are government
projects, they are not supposed to fail. Furthermore, government
agencies are not supposed risks taxpayer dollars. Which is odd,
because NASA tells us that space flight is inherently risky, which
implies that failure is a possibility. But as Apollo 13 Flight Director
Gene Krantz once said, “Failure is not an option.” [I realize that
I have taken his words out of context, which were meant to motivate
flight controllers’ effort to rescue the crew of Apollo 13, but
I cannot help but wonder if we assume all government ventures are
guaranteed successes, whether in the realm of space travel, public
education, or river levees.] Failure is considered the dreaded,
“Waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Finally,
the minority group states, “Once the Agency is on record as committed
to a specific achievement, it becomes unpalatable to back off of
that target for fear of appearing to fail. Instead, the adjustment
of performance standards to allow a ‘best-effort’ provides the appearance
that the goal has been met, but without the rigor and discipline
necessary do so safely or completely.” The minority group is correct.
But NASA has good reason for fear. The Congress and the American
public will see backing off as tantamount to failure, and governments
are not supposed to fail, “Failure is not an option.” Yet, failure
is not considered a possibility because NASA can always redefine
the meaning of a successful outcome.

While it is tempting to question how NASA does business and to suggest
solutions, the problem is not how NASA does business, but
rather that NASA does business. Although the engineers and
other employees of NASA are likely driven by a laudable desire to
explore the final frontier and expand human knowledge, NASA is a
government agency and is naturally driven by the political system.
Politics should not drive a space program.

On
the other hand, consider the success of private space ventures such
as Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.
He has been driven by a dream
to give people affordable access to space. He risked his hard-earned
reputation. Microsoft founder Paul Allen risked his own money to
help Rutan succeed. The X-Prize
provided him a framework of simple
rules
and a reasonable deadline to launch the first privately
funded manned spacecraft safely to space and back multiple times.
His successful first step should give us hope for the future of
human space travel.

September
10, 2005

Steven
Ng is a software engineer. He left the aerospace industry after
eleven years to develop software for consumer products and small
businesses. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in
Christian Apologetics at BIOLA University.

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