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NASA Space Government The Almighty Buck News Science

Stern Measures Keep NASA's Kepler Mission on Track 73

Posted by Zonk
from the playing-hardball-in-spaaaace dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "NASA's new Space Science Division Director, Dr. S. Alan Stern, appears to be making headway in keeping in space projects like the Kepler Mission at their original budgeted costs. The New York Times reports that Stern's plan is to hold projects responsible for overruns, forcing mission leaders to trim parts of their projects, streamline procedures or find other sources of financing. 'The mission that makes the mess is responsible for cleaning it up,' Stern says. Because of management problems, technical issues and other difficulties on the Kepler Mission, the price tag for Kepler went up 20% to $550 million and the launch slipped from the original 2006 target date to 2008. When the Kepler team asked for another $42 million, Stern's team threatened to open the project to new bids so other researchers could take it over using the equipment that had already been built."
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Stern Measures Keep NASA's Kepler Mission on Track

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  • by spun (1352) <loverevolutionary@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday January 03, 2008 @06:47PM (#21902182) Journal
    Put some big old advertising on it, call it Verizon Awesome Space Planet Finder. Offer to let sponsoring corporations name the first earth-like planet found. You'd have funding coming out your black hole, I tell ya'.

    Please, for the love of science, don't anyone take this seriously, m'kay?
    • I hope that never happens. Corporate sponsorship has already ruined stadium names. However, if Planet Hollywood got to name a planet in exchange for some sponsorship dollars, that might be kinda funny. :p
    • I know that this is off topic but one thing that annoys me about living in the US is the principal that if there is an exposed surface that someone can see, then you have to sell it off to someone to use as a place for advertising.

      Last time I flew I couldn't believe how far that this idea had gone. There were advertisements on the bottom of the plastic trays that you stack your belongings in when you slide them through the x-ray machines.

      Who in their right mind though that this was a valuable place to sell
  • No news here. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <`fairwater' `at' `gmail.com'> on Thursday January 03, 2008 @06:48PM (#21902192) Homepage
    Nothing to see here, move along please...
     
    Nobody should be surprised at this 'news', the unmanned/science side of NASA is just as bad at estimating costs and meeting schedules as the manned side. Every couple of years a new broom comes in and makes a big show of trying to change things... but things never really change.
     
    Keep this in mind when they start whining about how the Shuttle is eating up all their budget.
    • Re:No news here. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Zadaz (950521) on Thursday January 03, 2008 @07:53PM (#21902980)
      To the contrary, they know exactly how to bid on a government contract: You bid low so you can get any funding at all. Then you keep your head down so no one will notice your cost overruns.

      But I still feel that belt tightening is overdue at NASA. No way we're getting back to the moon, much less mars without more clever thinking applied to off-the-shelf components. The most successful of recent NASA projects have been the most thoughtful and focused, not the highest spenders.

      • Re:No news here. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by DerekLyons (302214) <`fairwater' `at' `gmail.com'> on Thursday January 03, 2008 @09:14PM (#21903932) Homepage
        When the components NASA needs are available off-the-shelf, that will be an excellent approach.
        • by TwP (149780)
          > When the components NASA needs are available off-the-shelf, that will be an excellent approach. The actual spacecraft is about half the cost of any NASA program. The other half is all the test equipment, the prototype models, etc. Having worked on the Kepler program, I can assure you that there are many off the shelf components that can be used -- not necessarily on the spacecraft, but definitely in the test equipment area. Another effort that the contractors are scurrying to implement are reusable t
          • The DoD doesn't seem to have any problem supplying equipment it owns as GFE (Goverment Furnished Equipment) to contractors - heck, half the stuff that GE used to haul down to my submarine for testing and overhauls was GFE. I suspect the problems at NASA aren't just contractual but also (and largely) proceedural.

            This is confirmed by anecdotal evidence from acquaintances who worked at Dryden and elsewhere - NASA tends to operate 'open loop'. When an office/program is established, it gets what amoun
      • The most successful of recent NASA projects have been the most thoughtful and focused, not the highest spenders.

        While I agree some strict budget control measures are long called for, I'm afraid the above quote isn't quite true. I'm having a lot of trouble thinking of missions that fit your description: successful, focused, not big spenders. Mars Pathfinder probably, although it wasn't necessarily a really focused mission. It was primarily a technology demonstrator. Stardust, Deep Impact, Mars Odyssey, and

  • by The Media Mechanic (1084283) on Thursday January 03, 2008 @06:52PM (#21902246)

    "Among other measures, the duration of the four-year mission was cut by six months and preflight testing was scaled back."
    Way to go guys ! You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests! Good choice there ! Nice one !
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kbob88 (951258)

      You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests!

      This is not about saving money on that one project. It's about changing attitudes and processes over the long-term -- towards accountability in estimation, planning, and execution. If a $500mm project has to fail because they couldn't plan and implement, that's not good for science in that area in the short-term. But it sends a message to all other (future) projects: NASA is getting se

      • by gstoddart (321705)

        If a $500mm project has to fail because they couldn't plan and implement, that's not good for science in that area in the short-term. But it sends a message to all other (future) projects: NASA is getting serious about money, so manage yourselves appropriately. And over the long-term, science in general wins, because more projects succeed, and money doesn't get reallocated from other projects to save the over-budget ones.

        So, if I replaced "project" with "war", "NASA" with "Pentagon", and "science" with "nat

      • The answer is to hold the project managers and cost estimators personally responsible. If they can't deliver on their promises, they should know that their jobs may be in jeopardy. Likewise, those who can manage a budget well should be promoted. In this way, you can have accountability without dooming a $550m project to failure just to prove an expensive point.

        At the same time, a careful analysis needs to be made of just how and why a project gets to be over budget. Was it poor planning, poor management, or
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by earlymon (1116185)

      Way to go guys ! You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests! Good choice there ! Nice one !

      Give that man a cigar! Here's a money quote from one of the first sites I'd googled for the initial Hubble failure:

      The initial failure of the Hubble Space Telescope is an example of problems caused by relying on computer simulations. In 1990, when the orbiting telescope sent its first photographs back to Earth, the images were unexpectedly fuzzy and out of focus. NASA determined that the problem was the result of a human error made years before the launch: the telescope's mirror had been ground into the wrong shape. The mirror, tested prior to launch like the telescope's other separate components, functioned properly on its own. However, the manufacturers did not actually test the mirror in conjunction with the other components. The manufacturers relied on computer simulations to determine that the separate components would work together. The simulation didn't take into account the possibility of a misshapen mirror.

      Because of the Hubble problems, NASA learned "a great lesson" about "the merits of actually testing a system rather than depending upon theory and simulation," explains Doran Baker, founder and vice-president of Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory.

      From - http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3797/is_199810/ai_n8814801 [findarticles.com]

      That's just one slice, but not at all the whole story. I get too pissed off even thinking of the early Hubble days to grope further to substantiate, but NASA blew it on many, many levels of saving a buck and avoiding common-sense operational tests - and I say this as an ex-advisor for the Army and Air Force operational

    • Way to go guys ! You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests! Good choice there ! Nice one !

      Leaving aside the serious issue of reduced preflight testing (*cough* Hubble *cough*), we're still paying $550 million (the 2006 budgeted amount) instead of $592 million (the requested total amount), a reduction of 7.1%. In exchange for those savings, we're getting 3.5 years of science instead of 4.0--a reduction of 12.5%. Way to go,

  • by timmarhy (659436) on Thursday January 03, 2008 @06:53PM (#21902254)
    This is what happens when you try use the lowest bidder method of picking contractors.

    They are forced to bid low and over charge later, if they don't some other company will do it and they will lose out.

    • by Anonymous Coward
      "This is what happens when you try use the lowest bidder method of picking contractors."

      Not really - scientific instruments aren't really chosen on that basis. Many of them involve new designs & concepts, so the costs are hard to pin down. At Southwest Research Institute, Stern's home institution, we had many missions go over budget for various reasons.

      And the original proposals go through both scientific peer review and engineering design reviews, so the costs go through many approval stages before a s
    • These aren't contractors doing the bidding - but teams of scientists, frequently in house.
  • by creimer (824291)
    If they keep whipping the eggheads into shape, there's going to be a lot of scrambled eggs. :P
  • for the love of god*: GIVE THEM MORE MONEY!

    *: yes yes. irony.
  • It seems to be human nature to want to try and quantify, classify and plan everything, however some things (like research) can't be effectively estimated beforehand because of the unknowns. Try explaining that to a project manager though.
    Whilst I agree with trying to keep to a plan, by being so hardline this guy just sounds like yet another clueless project manager who think the people that actually do the work (engineers and scientists) are purposely trying to go over budget at any opportunity if it wasn't
    • Stern (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Shooter6947 (148693) <jbarnes007NO@SPAMc3po.barnesos.net> on Thursday January 03, 2008 @07:56PM (#21903018) Homepage
      Alan Stern is the precise antithesis of a clueless project manager. He is, in fact, a planetary scientist who continues to actively contribute to the scientific community. He took this job because HIS mission to Pluto, New Horizons [jhuapl.edu], on which he is the principal investigator, did end up on budget and on time, and he thinks that the total amount of science would be maximized if others did the same. He's right. On the astrophysics side there isn't money left for hardly any science at all these days, what with the Hubble-successor James Webb Space Telescope [wikipedia.org] hoovering up any dollar not glued down. What Alan Stern is doing makes sense from the standpoint of maximizing the science return from a fixed yearly budget.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        The problem is that his boss, the President of the United States, has decided that the vast bulk of NASA's money should be spent on a welfare program for giant aerospace companies (i.e. "the base"), not on science missions. If the 'man on mars' fantasy, the shuttle, and the to date absolutely useless ISS project were shut down, there would be plenty of money to do science under NASA's current budget. Which isn't to say that NASA management shouldn't be tight with each dollar. They should. However as long a
        • by wierdling (609715)
          The Mars rovers have not shown that they can do space research far better than humans. If we would have had a manned mission on Mars for the last 4 years, we would know much, much more than we do now.

          The rovers have just shown that that robotic missions are cheaper.
    • by omris (1211900)
      for the most part, i would agree that many project managers do no understand the mutable nature of research. "if i KNEW what the data would show and how long it would take to get it, i would hardly need to DO the research." but then again, as someone who works with a project manager who feels that anything can be accomplished if you throw enough money at the problem and that budgets are not that important, it can be a real problem to operate as though money is no object. your average engineer wants to do
    • Well, when putting in a proposal for a NASA mission, you should generally have an idea of what components will be needed, how much the components will cost, how much time it should take to build this instrument et c. It's not like putting the instrument in space is the research aspect of the entire process, the research starts after launch and the experiments (or observing) commence.
      Anyways, I don't know if you read the article, but Stern is a scientist, he's an astrophysicist. So he does (or at least
    • by Carnildo (712617)

      It seems to be human nature to want to try and quantify, classify and plan everything, however some things (like research) can't be effectively estimated beforehand because of the unknowns.

      Building a space probe and putting it into the correct place is engineering, not research. We've put enough of them in various places that by now, we should have a reasonable idea of how much various bits cost, and in such a case, trying to keep costs down is reasonable.

      Once the probe reaches its target, that's when the

      • by cnettel (836611)
        Yeah, but the problem is that it's an engineering project headed by scientists. They'll just take their funding and decide that they need some kind of hyperlinked document-management system, and develop a new protocol from scratch, simply because they actually believe that's the best way to do it...
      • by Detritus (11846)
        Building a new instrument package is often not "simple engineering", it's more like research and development that advances the state-of-the-art. When your doing something that nobody has ever done before, you often run into unforeseen problems. It isn't like building a common type of bridge for the 37th time.

We don't know one millionth of one percent about anything.

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