It is rare you’ll see such a high-ranking ex-NASA official being so blunt with his criticism of the US space agency. Alan Stern resigned as associate administrator on April 11th this year under a cloud of controversy after it was reported the Mars Exploration Rover budget would be cut; with an emphasis on switching Spirit off for an extended period. Soon after, NASA appeared to do a U-turn and said they had no such plans to scale back rover operations. However, it would seem, Stern was caught right in the middle, but NASA would not comment as to whether Stern’s resignation was in connection to the cut-back announcement. Stern said the short-sighted attitude of NASA officials concerning budget overruns, plus the fact he was stopped from doing anything about it, precipitated his resignation. It looks like the Spirit debacle was a symptom of a much deeper illness (or “a cancer” as Stern calls it).
So, eight months after stepping down from his post as associate administrator (second only to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin) Alan Stern has written a highly critical article in the New York Times, firing a salvo across the bows of the US space exploration strategy…
After writing the article “Wasteful” Sample Storage Box Removed from Mars Science Laboratory on November 22nd, I couldn’t help but think how many researchers could have had their salaries, research and institutions supported by the wasted $2 million that was so easily lost by removing the surplus rock cache from the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL).
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Although I personally think the storage box would have been a waste of space on the MSL, its conception, design and implementation cost a lot of money and its removal seemed a little blasé. Yes, it might free up time for MSL scientists, and yes its removal will few up space for other instrumentation, but isn’t it irresponsible to be chopping off $2 million parts at this late stage? Let’s not forget, the MSL is being launched in a little under a year (barring any overruns… naturally).
It would appear Alan Stern has a few issues with the MSL too, as is evident from the scathing opening paragraph in his Nov. 23rd New York Times article:
“A cancer is overtaking our space agency: the routine acquiescence to immense cost increases in projects. Unmistakable new indications of this illness surfaced last month with NASA’s decision to spend at least $100 million more on its poorly-managed, now-over-$2 billion Mars Science Laboratory. This decision to go forward with the project, a robotic rover, was made even though it has tripled in cost since its inception, it is behind schedule, there is no firm estimate of the final cost, and NASA hasn’t disclosed the collateral damage inflicted on other programs and activities that depend on NASA’s limited science budget.” – Alan Stern
Ouch. He continues to highlight the MSL saying, “And the Mars Science Laboratory is only the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending.”
The article points out the high-level of mismanagement in the NASA system, citing several projects that have overspent as a matter of routine. Overspending appears to be inevitable, and many “pet projects” suck funds from other missions, often without accountability. But it doesn’t stop at the MSL.
“The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the storied Hubble, has increased from initial estimates near $1 billion to almost $5 billion,” Stern writes. “NASA’s next two weather satellites, built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have now inflated to over $3.5 billion each!”
“The list goes on: N.P.P., S.D.O., LISA Pathfinder, Constellation and more. You don’t have to know what the abbreviations and acronyms mean to get it: Our space program is running inefficiently, and without sufficient regard to cost performance. In NASA’s science directorate alone, an internal accounting in 2007 found over $5 billion in increases since 2003.”
According to Stern, NASA overspending seems to happen across the board, but this probably isn’t the biggest concern. The fact remains that NASA’s budget does not increase with each unforeseen overrun; it stays the same, so other NASA projects suffer cuts or cancellation. I haven’t worked with NASA, so cannot comment personally, but for each NASA mission I’ve covered in the past year of writing for the Universe Today, I find myself mentioning the words “overruns”, “over-budget”, “delayed” and “expensive” more often than not. We could put this down to the fact that getting into space isn’t easy (and it is by its nature, very expensive), but NASA has been in this business for 50 years, surely they should be able to keep damaging overspending to a minimum? Apparently not.
According to Stern, the “cancer” is “endemic”, where the problems begin when scientists and engineers (sometimes politicians) try to cram features and instrumentation onto missions beyond the original budget. Then, project managers allow these features to be worked into the design, without due care of the allowed budget, assuming they will get “bailed out” down the line (sounding familiar isn’t it?). In an almost fraudulent attempt by managers (in my opinion), the projected cost increase is hidden so not to arouse any concern from the guys overseeing the budget. When the mission is being constructed, the costs balloon, forcing NASA to plough more funds into the mission (especially ‘flagship’ missions like the MSL). The money has to come from somewhere, so ‘less important’ projects suffer the consequences. To make matters worse, scientists refuse to scale back costs and congressmen block cut-backs to prevent the politically damaging loss of local jobs.
Stern continues: “The result? The costs of badly run NASA projects are paid for with cutbacks or delays in NASA projects that didn’t go over budget. Hence the guilty are rewarded and the innocent are punished.”
It is well worth reading the entire article as it makes some worrying points, but Stern is keen to emphasise that NASA is a phenomenal agency on the forefront of human ingenuity, but he doesn’t want to see the current problems jeopardise the future of US space travel and exploration. He makes some pretty obvious parallels with the current economic climate and that NASA needs to rise above the zero-accountability/bail-out climate:
“To continue such accomplishments, NASA’s managers and masters must all make cost performance just as important as mission successes, scientific discoveries and good jobs. In an era of unpopular, costly government bailouts, Americans have every right to demand that NASA cease bailing out its own errant projects and make cost increases rare, rather than routine.” – Alan Stern