Second Science Committee Hearing on NASA's Mars Failures "In September 1999, NASA flew the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter into the red planet, turning an advanced science platform into so much junk burning up in the Martian atmosphere. In December 1999, NASA repeated the feat and crashed the $185 Mars Polar Lander as well." - House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin has appeared at congressional witness tables numerous times this year to discuss NASA's failures and to defend his management approach of "faster, better, cheaper." On June 20, the House Science Committee heard from Goldin yet again, and several other witnesses, on actions NASA should be taking to avoid similar mishaps in the future. Investigations have concluded that the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed because a failure to convert English units to metric affected navigation. Analysis of the loss of the Polar Lander is less conclusive, but software problems and inadequate testing of components have been suggested as possible causes. Several recent reviews of these and other recent NASA problems pointed to additional underlying factors, including a lack of experienced personnel and open communication, failure to follow proper engineering procedures, and willingness to tolerate risk to achieve cost and schedule objectives.
The committee members in general were hesitant to be too critical of Goldin and the space agency - Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) pointed out that "what NASA does really is 'rocket science'" - especially as Congress and the Administration have slashed NASA's budgets in the past decade and repeatedly called on Goldin to do more with less. As he has in past hearings, Goldin openly acknowledged that in trying to cut costs, he "pushed too hard." But he insisted on the validity of the faster, better, cheaper concept, "if properly applied."
Goldin said NASA has put together a team to address some common themes from the reviews. While the team's conclusions are not yet finalized, Goldin commented on several areas. He discussed the need to enhance employee and contractor training, coaching, and mentoring, using the latest educational methods and technologies. He noted the importance of "capitalizing on the knowledge of others" to ensure that lessons learned are not forgotten. He said all future programs should have a rigorous formation phase with objective development of cost estimates and budgetary reserves. He emphasized NASA's increasing reliance on software development, and said the agency needs tools that can simulate missions end-to-end, rapidly explore options and contingencies, and address safety hazards. He remarked that, although in a few cases additional funds may have been needed, he still believes "money is not the magic ingredient," and he made it clear that he has no intentions of asking the President for an amended FY 2001 NASA budget request.
Two other witnesses took issue with some of the recommendations presented in the reviews, warning that they might reverse NASA's progress. Alan Binder, formerly the principal investigator for the successful Lunar Prospector mission, professed himself "deeply concerned about" the main conclusions of several of the reports, which he said call for more funding, management, and oversight. If those recommendations are followed, Binder said, "I firmly believe that we will have started down the slippery path back to the old, expensive, slow way of exploring space." Both Binder and Pedro Rustan, who was mission manager for the Clementine spacecraft, strongly endorsed the faster, better, cheaper concept and opposed any moves toward greater oversight and higher funding. They instead stressed the importance of experienced staff and managers, with full responsibility placed on a single, "seasoned" person empowered to make decisions, continuity of the team throughout the mission from "cradle to grave," freezing requirements early in the mission, extensive testing, and limited reviews.
While Goldin agreed with many of their comments, he objected that NASA needs flexibility in mission development, and might miss opportunities if it could not change requirements throughout a program. Rustan countered that NASA cannot add new requirements and still constrain program schedule and costs: "You can't have it all."
Sensenbrenner chided Goldin for offering "more platitudes and generalities than specifics" in his testimony. To suggestions for continual learning in the workplace, high confidence in the early phases of projects, and focusing oversight where it is most needed, Sensenbrenner's wry response in each case was, "no kidding." He said NASA has "learned and applied" the formula for success, but then "apparently forgot." For all his criticism, though, the chairman remains a supporter of the agency and the faster, better, cheaper approach. "I hope sincerely that [the two Mars failures] were just a bump in the road," he concluded.
Audrey T. Leath