Before contemplating recommendations to strengthen America's future space program, it is advisable to have a solid comprehension of the concerns affecting America's present space program, as expressed by knowledgeable observers of, and participants in, that undertaking. Stated otherwise, it is a good idea to understand the problems before proposing solutions.
The civil space program has been subjected to a variety of criticisms, particularly in recent years, some of which in our opinion are justified and others not. Whatever the case, a number of issues have been raised that most observers would agree are deserving of careful attention as the space program moves into what can be a phase of significant future accomplishment. Among these concerns are the following nine issues.
Lack of Consensus
The President has promulgated a set of goals for much of the civil space program together with a schedule for accomplishing them. Questions have been raised, particularly in legislation enacted by the Congress, as to the financial feasibility of achieving these goals -- at least in the manner they are currently being pursued. This disparity of objectives and resources is exacerbated by the fact that there exists a wide spectrum of perspectives, even among the participants in the space program, as to what its objectives should be, with some arguing for more emphasis on basic science and others promoting applications, some supporting a centerpiece manned program while others favor far more extensive use of robots. Clearly, any program that involves goals demanding 5, 10 or even 30 years for their achievement must enjoy a solid underpinning of broad, enduring support. The alternative is to suffer through a prolonged sequence of projects that are started, stopped, and restarted, only to be modified again and again.
It is the Committee's considered judgment that NASA is oversubscribed in terms of the projects it is pursuing, given its financial and personnel resources and the time allotted to pursue them. There are at least two causes for this situation. First, projects have on occasion tended to grow in complexity and size as they have evolved, thereby demanding more resources than originally foreseen. Second, the initial estimates of required resources too often have been understated, particularly with regard to cost. This is an affliction that is by no means unique to NASA, but one that frequently has bedeviled large projects whether pursued in the public or private sector. The challenge of working at the edge of the technological state-of-the-art, which has been almost synonymous with the space program and will probably continue to be, makes all the more difficult the matter of accurately estimating future resource needs.
Whatever the cause, the consequence is clear: too many projects are initiated, resource shortages appear, and margins, if ever any were present in the first place, are inexorably eroded until little or no management latitude remains. The nation's space program of the future must provide at the outset realistic estimates of needed resources and a management approach compatible with the uncertainty therein. Major, high-technology undertakings necessitate the provision of margins -- whether they be in goals, schedule, cost, design concept, or all of the above. Any failure to provide adequate margins virtually assures a perpetual resource dilemma for management and continual frustration for workers.
"Management turbulence," defined as continual changes in cost, schedule, goals, etc., is closely coupled with the previous two issues. Turbulence is most often the consequence of unforeseen technical problems, lack of design discipline, or unrealistic budget forecasting. Each change induced has a way of cascading through the entire project execution system, producing havoc at every step along the way. A change necessitated at NASA headquarters can affect several centers, each of which passes the change along to a number of major contractors who, in turn, domino the impact onto perhaps hundreds of subcontractors and in turn to even thousands of lower-tier suppliers. At each step, contracts must be renegotiated, people reassigned, designs changed and schedules revised. Soon, a disproportionate amount of time is spent in the pursuit of these change practices instead of producing the end product itself.
The impact of excessive revisions in research contracts conducted by universities has much the same effect. In this case, substantial effort is devoted by academic researchers to the preparation of proposals for research support. When the presumed funds to support the work are subsequently diverted to other objectives, the productive talents of some of the nation's most able people are largely wasted. Perhaps the greatest price extracted by excessive turbulence is, however, the impact it has on motivation and morale of the individuals involved in carrying out projects -- both within government and outside -- who would prefer to devote their abilities to more constructive endeavors.
NASA is now a third of a century old and no longer operates under the relatively more flexible policies, regulations, and legislative environment that characterized its earlier years. Among the concerns that have been most often heard by the Committee has been the suggestion that the civil space program has gradually become afflicted with some of the same ailments that are found in many other large, mature institutions, particularly those institutions which have no direct and immediate competition to stimulate change. It is said that, on occasion, projects appear to have been tailored to help perpetuate the work force, rather than the work force having been tailored to meet the needs of the project. One by-product of any such practice is that it tends to maximize the number of organizations, and therefore interfaces, involved in a task -- exactly the opposite of generally accepted management philosophy that argues for minimizing interfaces, the "nooks and crannies" where problems seem to breed. Concern was expressed by the Rogers Commission investigating the Challenger accident regarding the willingness of the various NASA centers to energetically support one another or take direction from headquarters. Similar observations have been expressed not only by individuals outside of NASA, but occasionally from within NASA as well. An intense effort by the current center and headquarters managements has been underway to redress these long-building trends, yet much remains to be accomplished in this most difficult of management challenges, a cultural shift.
Contrary to the popular saying, at NASA you do have to be a rocket scientist to fill many of its demanding positions. There are few organizations in the world that confront on a daily basis the challenging, unforgiving tasks that are NASA's everyday fare, whether it be flying a "human satellite," exploring the outer planets with a robot spacecraft, or peeking into the creation of the universe. Achievements such as these demand an adequate share of the nation's best and brightest. To obtain such people NASA must compete head-to-head with a host of other world-class institutions, including the finest of industry and academia who are also seeking these very same people. Unfortunately, broadly applicable civil service practices are not conducive to attracting and keeping people with specialty skills of the type so much in demand at NASA (and elsewhere). In the past, the challenge and excitement of the space program has been a significant inducement for exactly the type of people one wishes to attract. However, this form of currency has in recent years been somewhat devalued as criticism has been heaped upon the civil space program and its participants, and as the image of public service in general has been permitted to deteriorate -- a development that the Committee decries.
NASA today is moderately competitive in acquiring new college graduates, but not competitive for experienced engineers and senior, technically-qualified managers. Deterrents include non-competitive pay, lack of sufficient coupling of pay and performance, inadequate compensation for moves, excessively bureaucratic hiring and firing procedures, and limited career development practices. In addition, NASA has now largely lost a principal source of leavening and fresh perspectives that was available throughout its early years in the form of mid-level employees who would forego positions in academia or industry to serve several years in government. This latter source of experienced personnel has largely been denied in the effort to avoid potential conflict-of-interest situations. In short, given current policies, the Committee is not sanguine that in the future NASA will be able to obtain or retain the necessary cadre of skilled personnel in a field where the most critical asset is the talent of the individual participants.
Next to talented people and a culture of excellence, the most important underpinning of the civil space program is its technology base. This base comprises the effort to develop key building blocks such as engines, computers, materials, and the like that enable significant new missions to be successfully undertaken. Unfortunately, this building-block effort does not always compete favorably with the missions themselves in contending for funds and skilled personnel. Often, fundamental development programs are less glamorous, less visible, have no organized constituency, and generally are comprised of a number of small-and medium-size projects.
Nonetheless, the consequences of neglecting the technology base are very measurable indeed, not only impacting America's competitiveness but inducing major projects to be undertaken without a sufficient technological foundation in place. When problems are subsequently encountered, these projects must be restructured, usually accompanied by an increase in cost. The result is that major pursuits, with large work forces that cannot afford to be held in abeyance, siphon money from smaller research projects or from the technology base itself, and the whole cycle starts anew. It seems clear that our technology base, including its supporting facilities, must be revitalized and afforded priority commensurate with its importance if major new projects are to be pursued on a realistic basis in the decades ahead.
Big Projects vs. Little Projects
A debate continues over the efficacy of pursuing a few large space projects as opposed to (many) small projects. It has been asserted, sometimes justifiably, that cost overruns in large projects often have been to the direct detriment of small research and technology undertakings, which are called upon to pay the bills. This concern tàr transcends the civil space program and is endemic to the "Big Science -- Little Science" debate in general.
Some large projects are clearly unavoidable if one wishes to pursue certain goals. One cannot, for example, send humans to the Moon in other than a very big project. Large projects also sometimes offer economies of scale, permitting the sharing of a computer, attitude control system, communications link, or tracking channel among a number of component experiments. Nonetheless, a great deal of useful science can be undertaken for the cost of a single major project. Furthermore, the time scale of large projects often is incompatible with the needs of academic institutions seeking to educate the nation's future scientists and engineers, and seeking research projects in which to participate. Clearly, no single answer to the "big vs. little" dilemma exists, but it must be recognized that bigness is not of itself goodness; that the natural tendency of most engineering pursuits seems to be toward bigness; that specific guards must be established against unjustified growth; and that, in any event, the issue must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Attention to Detail
Although not specifically within the purview of this Committee, the technical problems that have occurred in the past in the civil space program have a bearing on the formulation and execution of any future space program. Further, these problems have been at the root of much of the recent criticism directed at NASA. Such occurrences cannot be assigned a single cause, nor can they be precluded by promulgating still more regulations. Their prevention requires redundant, flexible designs, explicit test procedures, independent checks and balances, unwavering discipline and, above all, inquisitive, penetrating, and challenging people -- people who are not satisfied merely to fill the squares of regulations but rather are continually questioning and ferreting out anomalies to be placed in full view of all involved.
Resilience of the Space Transportation System
America's civil space program is heavily dependent upon the continued successful and timely operation of the Space Shuttle. The Space Station Freedom, for example, demands a substantial number of Shuttle launches on a relatively predictable schedule. The Shuttle, even with its 1970's technology, is demonstrably capable of performing such undertakings as man-tended satellite repair and recovery missions. However, it has not realized the economic benefits formed from the foundation of its original justification, and in terms of operating rhythm it in no way emulates the functioning of commercial airlines with which it is sometimes (inadvisably) compared. It is the Committee's belief that routine, on-time operation is not likely in the foreseeable future. It is concluded, therefore, that we are today overreliant on the Space Shuttle as the backbone of the civil space program.