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Slipshod Line in the Sand

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.