Hearings Review NASA Budget and Performance "This is world class performance by any reasonable standard." NASA Administrator Dan Goldin
Recent difficulties faced by NASA, including problems with the shuttle fleet and the failures of two Mars missions, loomed as the primary topic of House and Senate hearings on the space agency within the past week. House appropriators on the VA/HUD appropriations subcommittee were very supportive of the agency and its request for a budget increase, even as they questioned its spate of problems. Senate members of the Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space were somewhat more critical as they heard testimony on a number of reviews analyzing the agency's shortcomings. In particular, many questioned whether NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's 'faster, better, cheaper' (FBC) approach had led to failures in program management.
House VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R- NY), at a March 15 hearing, told Goldin that it was "safe to say...you have the strong support" of the subcommittee. He was pleased with the 3.2 percent increase requested for NASA's FY 2001 budget, but warned that the budget resolution might not allow much room for increases in domestic discretionary spending. "I think everyone should prepare for a bumpy ride again this year," Walsh cautioned. His warning was echoed by other subcommittee members; Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D- WV) called the requested increase "a welcome sign" but added that "the debate over the larger budget question...may have as much effect on NASA's overall funding as anything we do here in this subcommittee."
Much of the discussion centered around the findings of the independent reviews. Goldin reminded the subcommittee of NASA's recent achievements as well as its disappointments, but admitted to some problems. In particular, he said, the agency may have placed "too much emphasis on not breaking cost and schedule barriers."
Walsh and others had questions on the status of Russian efforts on the space station; Goldin was confident that the first crew will begin living aboard the station this year. Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) wanted to know if NASA's climate change research was politically-motivated. Goldin assured him that the research was peer-reviewed, addressed all sides of the issue, and was made available to the entire scientific community. Earth Science funding would decrease (by 2.6 percent) in the FY 2001 request, he said, because NASA is in the process of launching nearly 30 Earth Science spacecraft in the next few years and the program needed a "prudent pause" for review before going ahead with the next generation of missions.
Walsh asked whether NASA was making technologies it developed available to local and municipal governments for weather and natural disaster forecasting, land use, smart growth, and other applications. Goldin said the agency had some pilot programs but "I don't think we're as aggressive as we could or should be in this area." Walsh urged more effort, because "one of the best ways to resolve arguments" over trade-offs between housing and veterans needs and NASA programs is by demonstrating the benefits to the American public of NASA technologies. Following up on earlier questions, Mollohan asked whether the Mars failures were "casualties of 'faster, better, cheaper.'" Goldin replied that "the 'faster, better, cheaper' concept is absolutely okay," but he partially blamed himself for not better communicating to his employees what is expected from them. "I think some treated cost and schedule as a holy cow," he said.
Yesterday, members of the Senate Science, Technology and Space panel also questioned the consequences of the FBC approach. While saying he appreciated "the technical challenges and hurdles NASA faces," subcommittee chairman Bill Frist (R-TN) remarked that "for $14 billion a year, the American taxpayers deserve better." Full committee chairman John McCain (R-AZ) added, "the extent of mismanagement expressed in the reports is somewhat startling." Several other members spoke up for NASA, with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) urging that the recent failures be assessed in the context of the agency's many successes, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) stating that "we have trouble parking in a two-car garage, and we want to criticize those who can't land on Mars." Goldin defended his record at NASA, pointing out that "since 1992, NASA has launched 146 payloads" worth $18 billion. Of those launches, 136 were successful and 10 failed, with a loss of less than three percent of total costs.
"This is world class performance by any reasonable standard," Goldin declared. But he did admit to management shortfalls and noted that NASA had initiated many of the independent reviews to assess the causes. The reports have come to some common findings, he acknowledged, particularly regarding inadequate adherence to good management principles. He attributed this failing to the fact that over the past decade NASA dramatically increased its number of missions and decreased the time for each, while downsizing its staff, resulting in young program managers not receiving sufficient training and mentoring. He stressed that NASA pushed the envelope of "doing more for less." "Did we push too fast?" he asked. "Absolutely," but NASA is now stepping back and addressing the problems, he noted.
A second panel of witnesses comprised individuals who participated in various reviews of NASA programs. While they all had praise for the agency, they found that downsizing had stretched the NASA workforce too thin and resulted in some inadequately-trained program managers. None found fault with FBC as a concept; former NASA employee Tony Spear testified that it is "simply attempting to continuously improve performance through efficiency and innovation." But he added that "in our zeal," NASA had "gone too far in challenging projects to cut cost." Frist questioned whether it was appropriate to apply cost caps to programs like the space station, as McCain has advocated. Spear responded that caps could be effective if developed from a good, bottoms-up cost estimate, "but that isn't to say you stuff a large project into an arbitrary cap." Frist countered that it is difficult at times to get good cost estimates from NASA. He wrapped up the hearing with the promise to hold another in a few months to review NASA's integrated response to the reports.
Next month the Senate VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee will hear testimony on the NASA FY 2001 request. By May, drafts of the appropriations bills should give a first look at NASA's prospects.
Audrey T. Leath