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Stern Looks for Way Out of NASA's Budget Squeeze
Greg Hullender
post Jun 9 2007, 02:39 AM
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Science 1 June 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5829, p. 1269

News of the Week
SPACE SCIENCE:
Stern Looks for Way Out of NASA's Budget Squeeze
Andrew Lawler
His $5.4 billion budget is stretched thin, but rather than cancel space projects nearing launch or ask for more money, NASA's new science chief Alan Stern says he intends to beef up lunar science, champion smaller and less complex spacecraft, and insist on hard-nosed cost estimates before larger missions can win approval.

Full article: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/316/5829/1269a

I especially liked this line: "I don't have to kill any missions," he insists. But he said NASA will consider firing those principal investigators in charge of missions that spiral out of control.
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nprev
post Jun 9 2007, 02:55 AM
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I don't envy him this. Budget control is damn near an impossible task on some projects, especially when you're pushing the edge of technology and facing hard launch windows. Still, if anyone can do it, it's the guy that built New Horizons against all odds...good luck, Alan! smile.gif


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ngunn
post Jun 9 2007, 09:37 PM
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QUOTE (nprev @ Jun 9 2007, 03:55 AM) *
I don't envy him this....good luck, Alan! smile.gif


Well said, nprev.
When your job is to explore the universe one of the things that can happen is that you stumble on something unexpectedly interesting, or an unforseen opportunity to learn more. I believe that in a prehistoric context being able to rise to such occasions is what gave homo sapiens the edge. Budget controls create a level playing field - they dumb our species down to the level of the rest - being able to deal only with what was planned for.

I echo that good luck wish. I hope you manage to beat the odds, buck the system, or whatever.
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Greg Hullender
post Jun 10 2007, 04:19 AM
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There's a difference between research and engineering. The engineering part shouldn't have the kind of uncertainties we've seen so often. If one project has significant engineering risks and another doesn't, then we should fund the second. Arguably, we should fund some research aimed at addressing the risks from project #1, but it makes no sense to just do it and see what happens.

When project managers lie about the risks -- or make committments without really understanding them -- I don't see that as evidence of creativity. What made New Horizons successful (in my opinion, anyway) is that it used off-the-shelf technologies as much as possible. I'm sure there were technical challenges, but (as far as I know) the science at Pluto is the only real unknown.

Contast that with Gravity Probe-B. Every part of it was something new and challenging, and despite being decades late and orders of magnitude over budget, it appears to have failed completely.

We really need someone to make sure there isn't ever another Gravity Probe B. If they were all like NH, we'd probably get 2x to 3x the science we do now.

--Greg (Okay, maybe not THAT much) :-)
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nprev
post Jun 10 2007, 04:36 AM
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Good observations, Greg.

I'd say that it really all depends upon defining the mission objectives as clearly as possible as early as possible; in UMSF particularly, function must dictate form. The caveat here is that exploring truly unknown worlds often leaves function and therefore form vulnerable to uncertainty and late-breaking discoveries, which can translate into budget creep.


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djellison
post Jun 10 2007, 10:06 AM
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I know just how Alan feels - I had 5000 to do a complete IT overhaul at work - nightmare!

smile.gif

Doug
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Greg Hullender
post Jun 10 2007, 02:38 PM
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Using new technologies for the first time -- especially if you are the first to ever use them -- adds risk. Doing *anything* for the first time adds uncertainty. If at all possible, you hire someone who's done it before.

Sometimes you can't avoid it; in those cases, you're upfront about it, you try to load those risky items to the very front of the schedule, and you include a milestone to revise schedule and budget, depending on the outcome. From that point, schedule and budget both should be pretty solid. Again, it appears to me that this is more or less what NH did.

Alexander Pope had the right idea:
"Be not the first by whom the new are tried,"
"Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."

Of course, all progress would stop if EVERYONE did this, but there's scant chance of that. :-)

--Greg
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MaxSt
post Jun 10 2007, 10:51 PM
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QUOTE (Greg Hullender @ Jun 9 2007, 11:19 PM) *
Contast that with Gravity Probe-B. Every part of it was something new and challenging, and despite being decades late and orders of magnitude over budget, it appears to have failed completely.


Excuse my ignorance, but what's wrong with Gravity Probe B?
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Greg Hullender
post Jun 11 2007, 03:25 AM
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Folks who know the math better than I do tell me noise in the data means they're unlikely to measure the frame-dragging effect, which was the whole point of the mission.

Look at the last update to their web page and you'll see lots of talk about things like how many Ph.D.'s came out of the program and some words about measuring the geodetic effect (already done more cheaply), but nothing about the failure to perform the central task of the mission. Somewhere they did mention that they needed more time to finish the analysis (to somehow remove that noise) but people whose opinion I respect tell me it's probably hopeless. (Only reason for doubt is that the GPB folks hadn't released all the data last I checked, so it's vaguely possible someone else might salvage something from it.)

It was always a long shot -- so many new things had to work for them to pull this off -- and it's clear they worked really hard to try to make it happen, but it's also pretty clear that they didn't manage it. With a mission intended to produce a single result, that amounts to total failure. Given the fabulous cost of the thing, that's particularly sad.

Unfortunately, there's limited money for unmanned space probes, so what there is needs to go to the most promising missions first. Dollar for dollar, Gravity Probe B was a really bad bet. I'm hoping Alan can see to it that there are no more like it.

--Greg
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djellison
post Jun 11 2007, 06:59 AM
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Sounds like your advocating a progam of only very safe missions, or you want to somehow ban the unexpected. From time to time you have to try something extraordinary or you don't progress anywhere.

The GPB team didn't know there would be terrible noise before they started, the Genesis team didn't know the capsule would crash, the DI team didn't know the ejecta would obscure the crater so badly, etc etc etc. I agree that where possible, misions should use tried and tested technology - but someone still has to go and try the new technology (DS1 w.r.t. Dawn especially) - and in the case of some missions - like GPB - there isn't going to be any way to test the new technology without just getting on with it and doing it. You do the studies, you look at the engineering, you get the best brains in the world onto the problem and they come out and say "This should work - let's do it" - and in that respect, GPB is perhaps no different to, say, Stardust. Something comes along that we didn't forsee for one mission but not another and suddenly ones a complete and utter failure and ones a astonishing science result.

Short of predicting the future, I'm not sure how you can avoid that. You can make sure that all those studies are done to the Nth degree, every option studies, every engineering challenge investigated, but there will be things that you can not predict or could not forsee in every mission. It's a pity that GPB is an expensive case in point - but no one went out to spend that money with the intention of producing noisy data that would be no good.

Doug
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mchan
post Jun 11 2007, 08:40 AM
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QUOTE (djellison @ Jun 10 2007, 11:59 PM) *
The GPB team didn't know there would be terrible noise before they started...

Yes, but what bothered more than a few people was that they took such a long time (over umpteen years missing many schedule deadlines and launch dates) and kept going over budget. Even some folks who support GPB agree that NASA would probably never fund anything like it again or would cancel it way before launch.

On second thought, there's the JWST.
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cndwrld
post Jun 11 2007, 10:53 AM
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People have been doing space science for a long time now. On most missions, there are only a few things that are truly new or untried. Ion engines, deployable air bags for landings, rover enhancements have been recent ones. Not all went real well. No one is horribly surprised when such things surprise us. What generally seems to drive things over the budget cliff are not engineering uncertainty, but the way that missions get funded. It is one of those open secrets in industry that you get picked in large part by providing the lowest price. Not necessarily the price that you know it is going to cost. And then you get picked by the project office, when they often know it, too. Project offices pare down margins. Experience tells them they'll need it. But to get the cost down to what they are ordered to use, they cut it. People know how many people it will take to operate something, sometimes for years, but the Project Office can make assumptions about operations that aren't workable, and bury it because review boards typically don't look into things like software development costs, operating assumptions, or in-flight checkouts along the way. And all along the funding process, everyone assumes the schedule will never slip, efficiency is 100%, complex software always works. And by doing all this, you get a project approved for the amount of money that has been provided, when many people knew it wasn't enough for what you were trying to do. And everyone counts on the money being found later on, because once you get started on it, it won't get killed.

I think there's room for improvement, if the process is adjusted so that self-preservation in people all along the chain makes it necessary. I'm in the business because of the romantic side of it. But its also about big bucks, which doesn't always bring out the best in everyone. You can dream your dreams, but every dream has to be paid for if it is to be achieved. And we're paying for it with other people's money. For their sake, I think a bit more efficiency is not too much to ask.


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Greg Hullender
post Jun 11 2007, 02:16 PM
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QUOTE (djellison @ Jun 10 2007, 11:59 PM) *
Sounds like your advocating a progam of only very safe missions, or you want to somehow ban the unexpected. From time to time you have to try something extraordinary or you don't progress anywhere.


You take the risks you have to, but it's my perception (and I'm not alone) that NASA has taken foolish risks. Remember Alan's proposal to send a copy of NH to Uranus? That'd have been a very low-risk mission with an excellent promise of returning new information, but it didn't seem they took it very seriously. In fact, it often seems that NASA is risk-seeking, not risk-avoiding. The Space Shuttle is one obvious example of this.

I've heard a lot of complaints about the dishonest budgeting process too. Someone told me once that the largest reason for the failure of the Space Shuttle program to achieve its goal (of cheaper space flight using a reusable vehicle) was that in order to meet the budget requirements, they consistently traded off immediate costs for future maintenence costs. As a result, it costs 3x as much (even correcting for inflation) for the shuttle to put the same mass in orbit as an Apollo-era rocket did, and the fuel is only a tiny part of the cost; most of it is salaries.

There have been spectacular successes too -- don't get me wrong. The Mars Rovers, Cassini, Voyager . . . it's a long list. But when we look at how few interesting unmanned flights are planned over the next few decades, the importance of doing them right and getting the most bang for the buck seems higher than ever.

That's why I'm happy to see NASA put someone in charge who has actually done one right. It makes me more hopeful about the future.

--Greg
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helvick
post Jun 11 2007, 02:23 PM
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QUOTE (mchan @ Jun 11 2007, 09:40 AM) *
On second thought, there's the JWST.

I'll have some news on the JWST over on the main JWST thread later but for now the headline points to refute the implication that JWST and GPB are comparable - JWST is a long term multi instrument observatory that will provide 10-1000x the sensitivity of current observing instruments for a 10 year operational period. Comparing that to a one off mission with one experiment is not fair. It has overrun its budget badly but in today's dollars it's about 2x its original budget and that includes a decade of operations - if that remains true then it will come in at 50% of the LTD cost of Hubble. _And_ $300million of that overrun was caused by foot dragging outside of the project over the decision to use the Ariane-5 launcher. The recent schedule re-formulation exercise seems to indicate they are pretty serious about keeping things tight now that they know how to do this thing.
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stevesliva
post Jun 11 2007, 02:51 PM
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QUOTE (Greg Hullender @ Jun 11 2007, 10:16 AM) *
In fact, it often seems that NASA is risk-seeking, not risk-avoiding. The Space Shuttle is one obvious example of this.

There's an interesting interplay between conservative design, "Let's build with proven technology only," interchangeable parts, "Let's build with what is commercially available," and the march of progress. The dangers of trying to go backward along the technological axis are as fraught with danger as going forward, but certainly any system architect should focus on success and not technological development unless advancement is the goal itself. If the goal of the shuttle was re-usability it was a partial success, but it it was to lower costs it was certainly a failure... the irony being that the two goals are not necessarily compatible.

But I work in the semiconductor industry, and it is amazing to see how you cannot work in a vacuum. (no pun intended). We'd all love to work on an old technology, where all the dangers are known and all the tools are familiar, right up until the time when the factory lets us know they've forgotten how to make the stuff from a decade ago, and when the IT guys tell us that the computers that run the old tools aren't around any longer. (Not to mention you won't make too much profit, but that's off the table here) You take on risk just by stepping forward, but it is so hard to go back. We can talk to old satellites, but can we still build them?
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