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For NASA’s management culture truly to change, there must be fundamental reforms, not only within NASA, but also – more important – in the way Congress and the president oversee the space agency.
More than two years after the shuttle Columbia accident, however, it does not appear that elected officials have made much effort to reform their own behavior when dealing with NASA.
In investigating the fundamental problems that caused the shuttle to disintegrate over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded many if not all of the management problems at NASA stemmed not so much from the agency itself, but from a situation forced on it by the ill-advised decisions of elected officials.
For every specific issue facing NASA since the 1970s – the original shuttle design, the agency’s yearly budget, the structure of its shuttle program, its schedule and recent efforts to build the International Space Station and replace the shuttle – the CAIB bluntly condemned the contribution of Congress and past presidents as “a failure of national leadership.”
Above all, the CAIB report admonished elected officials for neglecting to give NASA a clear overall vision, a “lack, over the past three decades, of any national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission (for) requiring human presence in space.”
As a result, the CAIB noted how “NASA remained a politicized and vulnerable agency, dependent on key political players who accepted NASA’s ambitious proposals and then imposed strict budget limits.”
Now, less than two months before shuttle Discovery is scheduled to return to flight, there is little evidence either Congress and the president has taken these criticisms to heart.
For President George W. Bush’s part, he finally addressed the demand for a clear mandate for NASA when he announced his new space vision on Jan. 14, 2004 – focusing all of NASA’s efforts on the human exploration of the solar system, starting with a return to the moon sometime in the next decade.
This long-term blueprint undeniably is the clearest and most focused vision for NASA since President John F. Kennedy’s moon landing commitment in 1961.
Beyond that, neither Bush nor Congress has shown much willingness to avoid the other pitfalls noted by the CAIB, such as the squeezed budgets and arbitrary deadlines that have crippled NASA in the past.
For example, the president has offered NASA very little extra money to achieve his ambitious space-exploration goals, limiting the initial spending increase to only $1 billion, spread over the first five years.
Moreover, Bush’s vision calls for retirement of the shuttle fleet by the end of this decade, a position that Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the House Science Committee chairman, has emphatically endorsed.
Boehlert noted, in his opening remarks at hearings Feb. 17 on NASA’s fiscal year 2006 budget, how he is “for retiring the space shuttle as soon as possible, but under absolutely no circumstances later than Dec. 31, 2010.”
It seems reasonable for the president and Congress to demand discipline from NASA in the efforts to retire the shuttle, but what if circumstances require this arbitrary retirement deadline to be reconsidered? What if there is a delay in completing the space station? What if there is a need for the shuttle to continue to supply the station after 2010?
Will Bush and Congress then demand the 2010 deadline to be met anyway, forcing NASA to compromise its efforts in order to fulfill their original arbitrary commitment?
As the CAIB report noted, it was exactly such arbitrary scheduling and budget pressures that warped the judgment of past NASA managers.
“The past decisions of national leaders – the White House, Congress and NASA headquarters – set the Columbia accident in motion by creating resource and schedule strains that compromised the principles of a high-risk technology organization,” the report said.
Other workforce issues also illustrate the reluctance of Congress in particular to reform its administrative oversight over NASA. Buried within the CAIB report was a graph showing the trends of employment at NASA from 1993 to 2003.
In 1993, NASA’s workforce totaled slightly less than 24,000, a number that steadily declined to around 18,000 in 1998, then remaining stable through 2003.
The graph also showed only about two-thirds of the NASA workforce was composed of technical workers, a portion that stayed consistent as the workforce was reduced.
The CAIB report was unclear about what the remaining third did, but numerous studies of NASA over the years suggests it comprised the agency’s management.
In other words, there is one manager at NASA for every two engineers. Such a ratio seems unwieldy and top-heavy for an organization devoted to developing innovative and bold technologies for the exploration of space.
Part of this bloated management structure comes from NASA’s 14 spaceflight centers scattered across the country.
As the President’s Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy noted in its report in June 2004, these centers often “support duplicative capabilities that unnecessarily raise NASA’s cost to the taxpayers.”
The commission report added that personnel practices at NASA’s centers “have too often ossified, placing insufficient priority on innovation, professional growth, and managerial mobility.”
This again raises the question of leadership. When NASA management attempted recently to reduce staffing at some centers, members of Congress immediately stepped in block the actions.
For example, as reported by Cleveland.com, the Web site for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, this Tuesday elected officials in Ohio teamed up to tell NASA and the president under no conditions would they tolerate budget trims at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
“We need to play hardball,” said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, at a breakfast gathering of 200 businessmen. Also speaking in opposition to any cuts were Democratic Reps. Sherrod Brown and Dennis Kucinich, as well as Republican Sen. George Voinovich and former Democratic Sen. John Glenn.
As Glenn noted in taped remarks, the cuts are “a bad idea for America’s competitiveness.” Though he supported the idea of space exploration, he also said, “I don’t think it should be at the expense of everything else.”
Nor are these elected officials alone in their efforts. Ohio delegation members noted how they are working with other elected officials in Virginia, California and other states that face similar NASA cuts.
“This is not something that Ohio is going to do on its own,” Voinovich said.
The CAIB report concluded that because “NASA is an independent agency answerable only to the White House and Congress, the ultimate responsibility for the enforcement of the (CAIB’s) recommended corrective actions must reside with those government authorities.”
In other words, a fish stinks from the head.
If Congress and the president lack the courage to face these issues and make responsible decisions, the fundamental management failures at NASA that caused the Columbia accident will remain.
Perhaps as early as mid-May, NASA hopes to return the space shuttle to flight. Aware so much attention is being paid to this first mission, NASA has done everything it can to address the technical problems that existed to cause Columbia’s destruction.
Yet, significant doubts remain about how much NASA management actually has changed. When excitement has died and day to day operations resume, will the agency’s past shortcomings return?
Furthermore, will NASA’s bad habits be overlooked by a Congress that seems less interested in establishing a vibrant American space program and more committed to giving presents to its local constituents?
Based on past performance, the possibility of more Columbia-type tragedies – this time with an entirely new spacecraft – remains an unfortunate probability.
Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.