What's wrong with NASA: A simple summary

They were asked to do more with more, with less and less; and they tried to do it, until something gave.

Very true! The United States need to decided if it really wants to go to space or not.

Building a space station with a vehical that costs $500M per flight is now way to
do it!

The US, not NASA should have built a more ecomical launch vehical first. Safter, and
with newer technology, cheaper.

“Safer” and “cheaper” are usually mutually exclusive. In any case there’s not much point in discussing what they should have done. The question is what they should do now. Keep the Shuttle alive or retire it? If the Shuttles are retired, should they abandon the ISS or pay the Russians to maintain it? Should they spend $20 billion to develop a reliable reusable launcher, or spend $3 billion to develop a low-tech launcher closer to a Soyuz than the Shuttle?

The best I can tell, NASA plans to keep the Shuttle fleet in service for another 10 years while a low-cost replacement is put into service. The recently announced requirements for the “Orbitan Space Plane” describes a 4-person reusable capsule launched by an expendable booster. Sounds like a very realistic and frugal plan to me.

One element of the problem is that for a good chunk of the 90’s, NASA was operating under the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” policy.

This policy directly violates the principle that I call the management trichotomy: “Good, Cheap, Quick – pick two.” The point being, that the opportunity cost of the two you choose is the loss of the third option. This isn’t unique to NASA; any organization can suffer from the same problem.

There’s other issues also. NASA needs an overhaul, a new direction or two, and Congress’s support for that new direction.

When Richard Feyman was on the the team investigating Challenger, he found a cultural defect in NASA. Certain problems kept re-occuring, and they became considered routine without NASA trying to fully understand the problems, and their risks.

I wonder if this problem is still there, or was eliminated and has begun to re-occur.

Revtim hit it on the nose. Everything I’ve read is that the problems Feynman noted have not been resolved. My wife’s aunt works at JPL and the occasional note from there seems to still be the case of management not making waves, making things look better than they are, and simple CYA instead of do the right things right.

Dan Goldin’s mantra simply didn’t work - there is barely anything of note from his period of overseeing worth remebering. All the great probes, all the great achievements, came from a policy of “space first, cost later”. Dan Goldin would never have seen build a Pioneer, a Voyager, Gallileo, etc.

The SF author Stephen Baxter, in the novel “Titan”, makes an interesting accusation through one of his characters that the strings behind NASA purposefully sabotage any practical attempt at spaceflight. The argument being that if you make it affordable, there’s nothing to stop folks like Saddam Hussein ever acquiring the technology. So the cost is purposely fixed and made to look ugly for the financial markets.

Actually, just “do more with less” would have perhaps read better. :wink: But the same thing is happening to UK services under Blair. The ISS has become a complete cash cow fiasco that has left NASA crippled. A lot of Russian technology could have been used - but instead NASA was made to reinvent it through it’s “supporting” companies, to ensure the creation of US jobs instead of in Asia.

Interestingly, it might be a really good idea, politically, to shove some hefty money (and jobs) Russia’s way. Assuming the US government isn’t going to take money away from NASA to do it (ha! hahahahaha! Oh, I slay me…), pushing the Russian space programme (together with, of course, a better attitude towards research sharing etc) would help the Russian economy, which definitely helps everyone else RE: trade and/or terrorism, whatever butters your muffin. It might also produce a shakeup in NASA itself - swopping brains from Russia/Eastern Europe (fun fact: Hungary has the highest number of PhDs per capita in the world. Yes, Hungary. Suprised me too. You want to check out the level of education in Eastern Europe sometime - it’s enlightening) might produce culture changes and bring new ideas which the old school in NASA just aren’t thinking about.

Of course, if it happened by slicing NASA’s budget from “pitiful” to “bollocks to you, fuckers!”, then it would have a truly shite effect and not really produce a tangible difference in the space programmes of either country. But, hey, we can dream, can’t we?

(Take £15Bn off the Pentagon - they won’t miss it)

Exactly right. I think future historians will call it the Less Than Golden Era.


Funny you should mention the Galileo probe, because that probe suffered from exactly the same problem that plagued all the recent Martian probe failures.

To wit: In order to save on mission costs, they didn’t build a prototype that they could bang on while it was still here on Earth.

There were actually three Voyager probes built: the two that launched, and the one that was used for stress-testing the design. By the time the two “real” probes were launched, nearly all the bugs had been worked out of the system. Similarly, the Viking probes had a prototype, as did the Pioneer (and Pioneer Venus) probes.

Galileo, on the other hand, was one-of-a-kind – and we immediately saw the price we paid by not having a prototype to work on, when Galileo’s high-gain antenna failed to open. The Mars Observer, the Mars Climate Orbiter, and the Mars Polar Lander all lacked a prototype, too.

Thank you very much for that insight Tracer. I was not aware of that fact, but it sure makes a lot of sense.

Last night, on the Coast To Coast radio show, Robert Zubrin said NASA’s big problem for the past 30 years is no “vision”. There is no big goal, like a manned mission to Mars, so they have been essentially spinning their wheels all this time. He makes a very good point.