House Science Committee Holds Hearing on Mars Missions Earlier this month the House Science Committee held a hearing on NASA's Mars Programs, inviting Tom Young and John Casani to testify on the findings contained in the "Mars Program Independent Assessment Team Report." This team was established in early January following the failed Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, and Deep Space 2 microprobes missions.
House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) set the tone for the hearing in his opening statement by citing the work done by Young and his colleagues, saying, "The information in these reports leads me to believe that the issue of effective management is the major issue facing NASA. Whether cost, schedule and other limitations were too tight, whether there were personnel or other shortages all of these come down to issues of management. Simply throwing more money or more people at the problem will not address the underlying management issues uncovered in these reports."
Assessment team chairman Young told the committee that the "faster, better, cheaper" approach was an effective concept that should be continued, "if properly applied, which should be underlined." Casani, Chairman of the JPL Special Review Board, emphasized that an "about face" from this approach would be unwise. The witnesses, and the report, do not disagree with "faster, better, cheaper," but rather the way in which it was implemented. They describe one "extremely challenged," schedule and a "lack of adequate margins." Young cautioned that "mistakes are going to be made," explaining that "one mistake can be mission catastrophic." To avoid this, he recommended stronger management oversight, better testing, and independent verification. The problem, he later said, was not that a mistake was made, but that it was not discovered.
Committee members expressed some doubts. Ranking Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) said "faster, better, cheaper gives me a lot of concern," and asked if NASA and JPL were complacent or overconfident because of past successes. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) declared it was "an easy way out" to see higher budgets and more staffing as the solution. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) viewed it as "faster, worse, cheaper," and was incredulous that NASA did not require the use of the metric system (so much so that he is contemplating introducing legislation to require this.)
Young and Casani drew on the conclusions of the report from the assessment team. A summary described specific mission problems, such as "inadequate software design and systems test," underfunding of at least 30%, and the lack of telemetry to provide entry, descent, and landing data for the Mars Polar Lander. Most of the "lessons learned" involved deficient project management. While serious, none of these problems are unsolvable; the report's final observation was, "All Identified Flaws Are Correctable in a Timely Manner to Allow a Comprehensive Mars Exploration Program to Successfully Continue."
Chairman Sensenbrenner would seem to agree, in that in his opening statement, while critical of NASA, he concluded "I hope we will get some ideas today about what needs to be done to start addressing the problems and get NASA back on track." He then added, "and on to Mars."
Richard M. Jones