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Abort. Abort. 

There's a solution for NASA's management problems and foolish focus on manned spaceflight: no NASA

Wednesday, Feb 12 2003
It was only by happenstance that PricewaterhouseCoopers released a scathing financial audit of NASA just two days before the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated. But the two events do hint at deeper management problems at the space agency.

The audit -- which shows that the agency hadn't adequately tracked $13 billion of government-owned buildings and materials held by outside contractors doing work on the shuttle, the space station, and other programs -- seems to depict an agency plagued by the sort of inability, or unwillingness, to openly account for money and assets that created disasters for several large U.S. corporations during the past two years.

The Columbia disintegration punctuates a shuttle program launched 20 years ago amid gross exaggerations about its scientific and economic merit, kept alive through serial official misstatements regarding its safety, and shielded from public scrutiny all along by bureaucrats more concerned with PR than running a tight ship.

Several of NASA's more successful unmanned programs are already run in cooperation with academic institutions. It's time to put an end to NASA's expensive, dangerous, and scientifically useless manned space travel programs, and farm out its valuable unmanned space research to top universities and other agencies that put up satellites cheaply on commercial rockets (and don't kill idealistic schoolteachers and scientists).

Perhaps it's time to scuttle another mismanaged Cold War relic.

It didn't take a Nostradamus to see this day coming. Pretty much every ill that has befallen the space shuttle program, initially conceived as a "next logical step" toward putting a man on Mars, has been loudly predicted by journalists, scientists, politicians, and space enthusiasts. By the late '70s, the viability of a manned Mars trip had faded, and the shuttle was instead billed as a cheaper way to launch, and potentially retrieve, satellites. In a 1980 cover story in Washington Monthly, Gregg Easterbrook teased NASA's numbers and estimated that, if the agency were to do 20 shuttle trips per year (a number he considered more realistic than NASA's money-stretching estimate of 50 launches), delivering satellites on the shuttle would actually cost far more than on previously used Titan and Delta rockets. By last year, NASA was conducting only four shuttle flights per year; and the expensive shuttle program has ruined U.S. dominance in the commercial satellite launch market. According to the online publication Space Daily, the U.S. slipped to just 29 percent of the world's launch market in the year 2000, down from 48 percent in 1996.

NASA has shifted from defending the shuttle on economic grounds to touting science. The agency's shuttle Web site boasts that the "Space Station crew studies how humans adapt to living in space." Critics complain that much shuttle "research" merely examines how humans react to going up in the shuttle.

"Putting people in space is simply not scientifically justified," says space historian Pamela Mack, herself an advocate of putting humans in space -- but for nonscientific reasons. "If we put people in space, we're doing it for, there's a motivation of pride, a sense that this is part of the future of the human race, or something, the political symbol, the symbol of our technology. And we get caught with the question, do we believe that's worth doing? And if we believe it, how do we justify it?

"NASA gets caught trying to justify it by saying, 'This would make communications satellites cheaper.' But those technologies never got developed. Or you justify it by saying you'll do the materials research that leads to [scientific] breakthroughs. But the same money spent on Earth-based research would have led to more breakthroughs.

"They're trying to put a practical purpose on something where it's only worth doing if you believe in it for ideological reasons."

Many critics believe it's not ideology, but politics, that keeps manned spaceflight afloat.

"It's managed to survive because it's planted payrolls all over the country, particularly in the Southwest. Unmanned satellites can do anything people can do, and you don't have to have a national day of mourning when they burn up," says Daniel S. Greenberg, a writer who specializes in space issues and who recently published the book Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion.

Following the Challenger disaster in 1986, the late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman wrote an appendix to the official inquiry in which he linked fatal engineering miscalculations to the unrealistic launch schedule Easterbrook had criticized a few years earlier. He depicted an agency bent on rationalizing, rather than addressing, internal problems. In his report, Feynman hinted that sloppy management attitudes that helped kill the Challenger crew may have defined the agency's bureaucratic soul.

"Were the organization weaknesses that contributed to the accident confined to the Solid Rocket Booster sector?" Feynman wrote, rhetorically. "Or were they a more general characteristic of NASA?"

In its year 2002 audit of NASA's books, released Jan. 30, PricewaterhouseCoopers describes a system of management problems that extends through time. In 2001, the auditor complained that NASA did such a scattershot job of tracking equipment and property that it couldn't accurately determine how much money was actually being spent on the space station, whose total cost is usually described in the press as around $100 billion. For 2002, auditors attempted to further investigate problems uncovered in the 2001 review. According to this new report, the accountants delved into the 2002 books and discovered numerous contractor errors. In one instance, a single contractor had to adjust the value of materials it was using in a NASA project by $1.9 billion. (The report does not say whether the contractor was $1.9 billion high or low.) In another instance, the report states, the same contractor under- or overestimated the "assets in space" it managed by another $887 million. In all, the auditors discovered $2.8 billion in material errors in the 2002 audit, representing about a quarter of the value of the $13 billion in materials held by NASA contractors. A spokesman for the NASA Inspector General's Office told me the space agency is preparing its official response to the PricewaterhouseCoopers audit.

It's easy to dismiss this type of problem by suggesting that a bunch of flyboys shouldn't be expected to keep perfect books. And what academic researcher hasn't bristled at having to keep track of every single test tube to satisfy the grant-application police? But the fact is that, since the 1950s, NASA's major space programs have been more management feats than scientific ones. In other words, NASA long ago grew into the sort of large, complex bureaucracy that succeeds or fails based on ordinary organizational criteria.

In the NASA-published book From Engineering Science to Big Science: The NACA and NASA Collier Trophy Research Project Winners, editor Pamela Mack makes the point that NASA's "Big Science" projects -- such as the X-15 rocket, the Apollo moon shots, and the shuttle -- involve more bureaucracy than discovery. I phoned Mack, a professor in history focusing on technology at Clemson University in South Carolina, wondering whether it was fair to condemn an agency dedicated to adventures in science for accounting errors.

"When you think about programs like a shuttle, all the engineers involved can't sit around one conference table. You need to have an extensive system of paperwork and control documents," she said. "Individual people can no longer do this kind of organization because the issue is more complex. And as problems become more complex, a certain amount of bureaucracy becomes unavoidable. You can't hold the interrelations in your own head."

In the past, critics have charged that NASA's organizational problems have been allowed to persist in part because of a lack of forthrightness on the part of administrators. So far, the way administrators have handled the Columbia disaster suggests the agency hasn't changed its ways.

In the days following the Columbia tragedy, NASA carefully orchestrated the release of information. The agency refused to make members of the mission control team available for press interviews; access to Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore has been limited to single questions at news conferences, with follow-up questions not permitted; when reporters attempted to question Dittemore following one conference, security guards formed a barrier, according to the Palm Beach Post. Since the Columbia disaster, officials have also withheld public documents pertaining to the shuttle, the paper charged.

In his 2002 book Science, Truth and Democracy, Columbia University philosophy professor Philip Kitcher writes that publicly funded science must face a clear accounting of whether research contributes to the public good. NASA's manned space effort has consistently failed to hold programs to this standard.

"The first thing to ask is, 'How much does the public actually know what the costs are and what the benefits are?'" Kitcher said when I spoke with him last week. "Typically what happens, of course, is that you have programs that have their own inertia. That may well have happened in this case. There was this enormous symbolic value for going through with this program. It clearly had a lot of symbolism in the days of the Cold War. But we need to know what kind of scientific benefits, practical benefits, emerge from sending human beings into space."

It's been an entertaining luxury to have NASA as a Bay Area neighbor. News stories about high-tech shuttle glaziers and the like are plenty of fun. But it may be time for Americans to take a hard look at the agency's manned space program, even at the agency itself, and to consider grounding them for good.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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