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Reports Critical of NASA's Approach

Story Filed: Monday, March 13, 2000 5:49 PM EST

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- In the wake of two botched missions to Mars, reports on NASA's ``faster, better, cheaper'' approach to space exploration suggest the agency is trying to do too much with too little money and not enough oversight.

The reviews released Monday do not recommend a return to the large, expensive space missions of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, management must be held accountable, goals clearly set and, if the money isn't available, programs downsized.

``We need to slow down some, not rush too quickly into important programs and projects, plan and implement them more carefully, and move away from fixations on cost and near-term gain,'' said Tony Spear, who led one of the reviews and is a former manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Last year was especially difficult for NASA: In addition to losing two Mars probes, space shuttle flights were delayed, the Hubble Space Telescope temporarily shut down and other missions either missed their targets or failed at launch.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin ordered reviews, including the two released Monday: Spear's analysis of ``faster, better, cheaper'' and a report on management by the Mars Climate Orbiter failure board. Last week, another board made 81 recommendations on shuttle management, safety and technical issues.

``We knew this change would not be easy,'' Goldin said in a statement. ``We knew we would have problems. We pushed, we monitored and we initiated these reviews to find the areas which need correction.''

A common theme runs through both reports: ``Faster, better, cheaper'' missions place too much emphasis on cost and schedule reduction and too little on management, oversight, leadership and evaluating risk.

The Climate Orbiter, for instance, was lost when a contractor failed to convert measurements into metric units. The $125 million probe flew too close to Mars on Sept. 23 and is believed have burned up in the atmosphere.

The mistake itself was not as serious as the failure to catch it, the review board said. Its first report, issued in November, attempted to remedy the failures before Mars Polar Lander arrived.

But the $165 million spacecraft was last heard from on Dec. 3, just as it was beginning its descent to the surface.

``It's Management 101. They're basically saying there are four things you have to balance: cost, schedule, content and risk,'' said John Pike, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. ``But they don't say very much about how to balance those.''

The reports are vague in specifics: The Climate Orbiter board proposed a new mantra called ``Mission Success First'' that would help employees keep focused as the agency shifts from a small number of pricey missions to many cheap ones.

The space agency will decide what specific actions to take by midsummer, said W. Brian Keegan, NASA's chief engineer.

Goldin implemented the ``faster, better, cheaper'' philosophy in 1992 in response to shrinking budgets and fears that the agency was placing too much emphasis on too few missions.

Those concerns were realized a year later, when the $1 billion Mars Observer disappeared as it was about to start orbiting the Red Planet. Years of development were lost when the probe vanished.

Goldin continues to emphasize that future missions should be smaller, launched more often and cost less money. At first, that approach seemed to work: Mars Pathfinder's Independence Day 1997 landing was nearly flawless, and the orbiting Global Surveyor continues to operate.

Spear, who was Pathfinder's project manager at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said engineers and scientists ran into trouble while developing the second generation of Mars spacecraft -- the doomed Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander.

``So (faster, better, cheaper) is not resting on your laurels, not just accepting past ways without good reason,'' he said. ``It's the questioning the reason for every practice, it's continuously stepping out with new methods, new technology and taking prudent risk.''

Copyright ) 2000 Associated Press Information Services, all rights reserved.

-- (, March 13, 2000

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