A Stern warning

By Phil Plait | November 24, 2008 1:00 pm

Alan Stern is an astronomer, space scientist, and had a stint at NASA HQ as Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. While he was there he was appalled when he saw cost overruns eating away at various missions, and the collateral damage they were causing other missions. He wound up resigning when he realized he couldn’t do what he was tasked to do (including controlling costs), because he was countermanded by people higher up in the NASA pecking order.

Alan wrote a scathing editorial in the New York Times today, and I must admit I find very little if anything in it that I disagree with. While I was a contractor for NASA, and all the time I have worked with NASA projects, I heard stories of missions that ran hugely over budget, and how that impacted other missions (including ones I worked with, so I saw a lot of cutbacks take their toll). NASA has a finite budget, so when one mission runs over cost, that money has to come from other missions.

What NASA needs is oversight, more accountability, and people in its management structure willing to take responsibility for these overruns.

Ironically, what it also needs is more money. The basic fact is that getting to space is hard, takes a long time to plan out, and costs a lot of cash. Of course, in general I think this is money well spent, and I will argue that vehemently, and so will others. What NASA does is important, and the money we spend we get back multiplied many times over. But that doesn’t mean NASA should get a wheelbarrow full of million dollar bills and a wink of the eye to acquiesce spending money as it sees fit.

With more money — and of course with the money it gets now, less than 1% of the national budget — comes responsibility. NASA does great things, fantastic things… and it can be doing far, far grander work. But it will take quite a bit of self-inspection and change in the status quo to get it done. Mike Griffin, the current NASA Administrator, will almost certainly be on his way out next year. I hope the Obama Administration will find someone to step in who has the vision, the plan, and the management know-how needed to get NASA flying straight.

Tip o’ the space suit helmet to SpaceWriter.


Comments (45)

Links to this Post

  1. NASA | November 24, 2008
  2. NASA chiefs to talk MSL | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine | December 3, 2008
  3. NASA | December 4, 2008
  1. John Powell

    What NASA also needs is an culture of honesty about budgets. I suspect the reason for epidemic budget overruns is that proposed projects that are honest about their budget needs are rejected for being too expensive, so there is a constant pressure to lowball your projected costs.

  2. Angel

    I work for the FAA, another federal agency that provides a service that is very valuable, but there’s a lot that could be done to save money or channel it to useful areas. Lots of money is wasted every year because of the use it or lose it philosophy of budgeting. We buy office supplies but can’t get spare parts for equipment, because it comes out of a different pot of money. We’ll spend $500 on overtime rather than $200 on travel, because it comes out of a different pot.

    Not to mention the amount they’re paying me while I post to this blog. :)

  3. david

    With the private space industry coming online, i’m optimistic that this could be less on an issue in the future. A corporation can’t consistently spend 10M on something that should cost 1M; another company will eat their lunch if they do.

  4. Alan says publicly what many of us have thought privately for years. I spent my graduate school years as a member of a couple of different teams that NASA funded for research, and it seemed like the budget process was always a game and a balance between asking for what you needed and then wondering if it would get funded if you told the truth about what you really needed. NASA is one of the things this country has every right to be proud of for what it does — and I have hated like HELL seeing it get played by anti-science zealots and greedy Congresscritters/Senators for various reasons. That crap isn’t fair to the folks who are doing the actual day-to-day science and who deserve better guidance at the top.

    Alan may sound harsh, but he speaks truth to the power of what NASA could be doing with its budget if it weren’t infested with the cancer whereof he describes.

    Oh yeah… Alan had an office down the hall from me during my first years in grad school at CU. I’ve always known he was going to end up in some political appointment — he’s got the background and science and cojones to do it.

  5. gopher65

    Exactly John Powell. They fire the people who tell the truth, and hire the liars, because the liars make their missions sound better. And the morons in management can’t seem to figure this out!

    I mean, when it happens once it is an accident. When it happens 10 times it is foolish, but still a learning experience. When it happens mission after mission, decade after decade, you have to take a serious look at the intelligence of the people in charge.


    Dr. Phil Plait:

    [Alan Stern] wound up resigning when he realized he couldn’t do what he was tasked to do (including controlling costs), because he was countermanded by people higher up in the NASA pecking order.

    Yeah, that’s how it is in any organization: the birds higher up on the tree crap on the ones lower down.

  7. Cheyenne

    Anybody have a short list for possible contenders for Griffin’s job? Ed Weiler?

    And, obviously, Stern is trying to throw his hat into the ring as well.

  8. I don’t think Alan would write this if he was a contender… ironically, that would look like politicking to get the job. But, I could be wrong and Alan could be the stiff breeze they need in the agency to blow out the crud.

    Not sure about Ed W… he may be close to retirement and not interested.

  9. One Eyed Jack

    “But that doesn’t mean NASA should get a wheelbarrow full of million dollar bills and a wink of the eye to acquiesce spending money as it sees fit.”

    Absolutely correct. Spending billions of dollars however it sees fit is the job of the military. We can’t endure two bottomless pits in one budget.

    Can you imagine where we would be today if we put half the money into research and development that we put into the military?

  10. Elmar_M

    I agree with you Phil that more money should go to NASA (and I know where to get that money from). I also agree that going into space is expensive. But if the expense of going to space is limiting us in our science endeavours then we should fix this problem FIRST. This is something I have been saying for a long time and where I am totally in clinch with the previous space policy. You need to fix the expensive problems first, then you can do whatever else you want to do. If sending stuff into space is to expensive, then fix that problem! There should also be enough money for this (since this should prevent more expenses later).
    The current policy has us go to the moon, later mars and we dont even have a way to get humans into orbit for a reasonable ticket price. That does not make sense.
    This is a policy problem and this wont be fixed by just throwing more money at NASA.

  11. When money is voted in but not appropriated, when long term projects are budgeted on an annual basis with no promises for the next year, when design changes are made by politicians instead of scientific and technical people, then it is hard to stay on budget, on time, and on goal. I am not a manager, but when tasks are given and then the budgets cut ex post facto… OK, Don, enough.

  12. SLC

    As someone who worked for another government agency involved in contracting to private contractors, let me put my 2 cents in. Ther are several problems with the way the government does business.

    1. Going with the low bidder, which my agency did until fairly recently, encourages contractors to lowball, knowing that cost overruns will be covered because of already sunk costs.

    2. Another problem is change orders where contracts are modified to extend their scope. In other words, after a project gets underway, somebody gets the idea to add bells and whistles to the product, which of course, leads to cost extensions.

    3. Many government agencies are loath to allow bidders to build contingencies into their bids. Unfortunately, on complex projects, things can go wrong through no fault of either the government or the contractor. As a for instance, I was involved in several projects which required the collection of data outside of the laboratory. The contractor had to assume that it never rained, that equipment never broke down, that nobody on the project ever became ill or left the company, etc.

    4. On projects involving development of computer software, it is difficult to estimate the effort that will be required to design, code and debug programs beforehand. In a space mission, failure of computer programs which have not been thoroughly debugged can lead to expensive hardware failures (e.g. space missions crashing into the sea). Anybody who thinks that computer software development can be done on the cheap need only look at how many downloads they get from Microsoft and Apple to fix problems with their operating systems (Microsoft had 3 service packs for Windows XP; in Macintosh operating system 10.3, there were at least 9 updates (I was up to 10.3.9 before switching to 10.5)).

    5. Last, but not least, is my and Bob Parks’ favorite hobby horse, manned space flight. The easiest way to cut costs is to scale back this turkey.

  13. Radwaste

    Well, shucks. We got a Vision for Manned Space Exploration, or something like that, from the current Administration as a result of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (who found out that depending on the year, between $2 and 5 billion is wasted on stuff that doesn’t fly) and don’t like it for some reason. But as Roger Tetrault pointed out, you don’t need to agree with the scope to acknowledge that a plan is really needed.

    The “Vision” just needs some teeth, to become a sort of “Constitution” for the agency. Something that doesn’t depend on a particular person to be effective.

  14. Given the current political environment it’s pretty hard to picture any government reforms that would reduce the bureaucracy and inflexibility associated with government contracting.

    The chance of a real budget increase for NASA is nil, and the pressure to divert NASA funding into things like electric cars and windmills will be great.

    And now that the election is over the best we NASA fans can hope for is four years of benign neglect.

  15. Elmar_M

    In response to what SLC said (something that is happening here too and worse).
    I work as an entrepreneur and if for some reason I get fooled by a company that lowballs end then overruns costs once, I wont hire this company again.
    From what I have noticed though, NASA seems to still like to hire the same two guys over and over and over again.
    So either they never had cost overruns, or NASAs management is having issues, or politics are more important than proper management (e.g. when politicians put pressure onto NASA management to employ a certain company to secure a certain number of jobs… you know how it goes).

  16. Jennifer

    One of my favorite nonfic books is Augustine’s Laws, written by a former aviation company exec and Undersecretary of the Army. He basically uses humorous anecdotes and statistics to honestly point out where and how government projects go wrong. One chapter is specifically about overruns, and suggests that it’s possible to estimate how much the program will overrun based on the size of the initial bid. (It also points out that in ancient Greece, government contractors were made to risk some collateral, which they would lose in the case of drastic overruns.)

    Another chapter points out that the number of tests done on an item are inversely proportional to its cost. BECAUSE the most expensive and complex items are so valuable, they are tested less under proper conditions which could damage them, which means they are more likely to have something go wrong once actually in service. This is why, say, a disposable handheld missile launcher will fire hundreds or thousands of rounds before being approved, while a manned spacecraft only makes one or two flights. You can’t afford to “test” a space probe under interplanetary conditions for several years — if you’re going to do that, at enormous expense, you might as well send it up as is and let it do its job!

  17. BREAKING NEWS: NASA Prepares for New Juno Mission to Jupiter.

    Called Juno, the mission will be the first in which a spacecraft is placed in a highly elliptical polar orbit around the giant planet to understand its formation, evolution and structure. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our early solar system.

    The spacecraft is scheduled to launch aboard an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in August 2011, reaching Jupiter in 2016. The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter 32 times, skimming about 3,000 miles over the planet’s cloud tops for approximately one year. The mission will be the first solar powered spacecraft designed to operate despite the great distance from the sun.

    Click on my name for more information.

  18. justcorbly

    Going over budget is not just a NASA problem. There’s nothing unique happening at NASA that breaks the budget The same thing happens in all government agencies and, frannkly, in all large corporations.

    The fundamental reason for this is not greed, but simple lack of knowledge. People just don’t know what their latest pet idea might actually cost. Sometimes that’s incompetence, but often it’s because no one really has a clue about the real costs of a proposed project. (Quick: What’s it cost to send a crew of six to Mars for a 6-month stay and then back to Earth?)

    In a shop like NASA, more money is probably wasted on projects that do not provide long-term support to the overall goal of the agency. The Shuttle is the prime example, so long as we take NASA’s purpose to be to send people and machines to specific destinations in space. If the politicians who set the goals of the Air Force did that the same way they determine NASA’s goals, the Air Force would be spending billions on aircraft that nevr go anywhere.

  19. Cheyenne

    Wow that Juno mission looks cool!

    I also saw that they are launching a small satellite (about the size of a football and only cost $1 million) to study gamma rays that come from the Earth (from lightning apparently). I think it’s called Spitfire (or something like that).

  20. Cheyenne

    What’s it cost to send 6 people to Mars and back? I have the answer to that! It’s more than this world can possibly afford for at least the next 3 or 4 decades.

  21. justcorbly

    Cheyenne, how do you know that if you don’t say what it would cost?

  22. changcho

    “But that doesn’t mean NASA should get a wheelbarrow full of million dollar bills and a wink of the eye to acquiesce spending money as it sees fit.”

    Why not? They gave the financial institutions (i.e. crooks) 700 billion and counting with little or no oversight, why not NASA? Surely they are infinitely more deserving…!


  23. >What’s it cost to send 6 people to Mars and back?

    Substantially less than it will cost to bail out Wall street.

  24. Bob Zubrin’s 1996 estimate for Mars Direct was 55 billion so even if you doubled it it would come to 100 billion. For the life of me I can’t recall any space projects costing 100 billion and nobody could ever waste spend money like that on any project… ISS.

  25. Gonzo

    What NASA the U.S. government needs is oversight, more accountability, and people in its management structure willing to take responsibility for these overruns.

    Fixed that for you.

    Also agree that NASA needs, and should have more money.

  26. justcorbly

    Shane: The cost of Apollo was $25 billion. That’s more than $135 billion in current dollars.

  27. justcorbly, just repeatin’ Bob Zubrin’s estimate. I doubled it just because, but I haven’t been able to find figures greater than $55 billion estimated. The Mars Direct proposal uses off the shelf technology which is supposed to reduce costs. Apollo invented the wheel. No reinventing said wheel here. NASA’s estimate at the time for a Mars mission was $450 billion though.

  28. Hugo

    NASA should buy shares in a major bank and flail its arms about screaming, “Jobs! The working class! America!”

    Then, cash will magically rain out of the sky on them :P. With zero accountability.

  29. quasidog

    Meh … what do you expect when essentially it is run by idiots that spend billions bombing the crap out of other countries. I wish it wasn’t that way but bad luck. I hope this new Obama government has more brains than the previous. The money all filters down from the same source.

  30. Cheyenne:
    “What’s it cost to send 6 people to Mars and back? I have the answer to that!”
    No, you don’t.

    “It’s more than this world can possibly afford for at least the next 3 or 4 decades.”
    If you consider it a valid “answer”, you are good material to be politician, lawyer or other liar in white collar.

    Question was “What’s it cost to send a crew of six to Mars for a 6-month stay and then back to Earth?”. Answer. In 2008 dollars, not handwavy, murky remarks.

  31. Nigel Depledge

    There have been lots of good comments here, pointing out that there are many and varied reasons why project budgets over-run.

    The point has also been made that those managers who are involved in projects that over-run are not held accountable.

    However, no-one has yet mentioned the sunk-cost fallacy (although one commenter may have vaguely alluded to it). Take the scenario of Mars Science Laboratory (which I think someone mentioned but I can’t now find the comment), with its over-run of goodness knows how much. Apparently, it was judged at one point better to spend an additional $200 million than to scrap a project that had already cost $1.8 billion.

    This is a classic example of the sunk-cost fallacy. The question should not be “how much have we already spent?” because this money is gone, spent, and ain’t coming back. The question should be “what are we going to get for our $200 million?”. Only thus can a rational decision be made about whether or not to spend that money on that project.

    However, the sunk-cost fallacy is often ignored, because the public perception of a scrapped project is that it is a waste of money. So it is “better” to scrap a project that has barely got started than to scrap a project that has cost $1.8 billion (or whatever). However, the logical way to look at the decision is to consider what each project offers to give you for your $200 million.

    Apparently, humans are the only animals ever recorded to fall for the sunk-cost fallacy.

  32. timplausible

    Alan Stern is a brilliant, arrogant man. He seems to have forgotten the failure of “faster, better, cheaper,” when NASA was encouraged to pursue high-return projects in tight budgets and accept higher risk.

    People talk about how much NASA has fallen since Apollo, yet don’t seem to talk about how NASA was given free-reign and blank-checks back then to do whatever was necessary. And it was also allowed to fail. Three astronauts died in a fire on the ground, and the program kept racing forward. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it would never happen now. You cannot simultaneously tell an agency that it has to live within constrained budgets and also rake them over the coals over any kind of failure or cost overrun. If you push engineers to do a normally expensive job for less money, you have to accept risk. Both technical risk (failure) and programmatic risk (overruns).

    When you squeeze budgets more and more, people get pressured to underbid projects – often without even realizing it. High-return projects with a reasonable chance of success cost what they cost. I believe the problem has more to do with expecting an agency to do those kinds of missions for unreasonably low price-tags than with NASA not knowing how to manage its budgets. In Stern’s NASA, projects would get pressured into tighter and tighter cost constraints. They would bid high-risk missions for lower price-tags. Some of them would succeed. Many of them would fail. Many of them would overrun. And Stern would blame it all on the projects themselves, never on his own unrealistic expectations.

  33. Daniel

    Sure, lets give them more money…as long as NASA sends stuff up that doesn’t malfunction or blow up because of an oversight or “a cheaper, faster and better ” way to do things (you get what you pay for) .

  34. justcorbly


    I agree, although I’d add that NASA didn’t really have a blank check in the Apollo heyday. Even while its budget grew during the late 1960’s real constraints existed.

    The primary difference between NASA then and NASA for the rest of its existence is that the President gave NASA a directive — to travel to a specific destination within a specific timespan — that had broad political support throught the nation. NASA’s role was to fulfill a mission that was created and assigned to it from outside the agency.

    Following Apollo’s demise, no President has provided similar leadership for NASA. The agency has been burdened by wishy-washy goals that no longer involve actually travelling much of anywhere in space. It has spent much of the last 30 years repeatedly doing what it has already done. No wonder public and political support has eroded.

    NASA needs a mission and that mission must come as a directive from the President. In the 1960’s, its mission was to go to the Moon. (Go on the street today and ask people what NASA’s mission is.) A President must be willing to lend his his or her commitment and prestige to a project, generating public and political support for NASA.

    I.e., NASA must been seen as an agency carrying out the will of the nation. We’ll go to Mars when our leaders generate and sustain that will, not before.

  35. DGKnipfer

    Once of the things that always amazes me is how much the people on this board slam military spending. I know we’re currently in a crap war that is wasting money, but the view I get is that the military is just a flat out waist irrespective of our current situation in Iraq. (Don’t delude yourself into thinking that any of that money would have been spent at NASA if we hadn’t gone into Iraq.) And yet one poster points out that a mission is going to Jupiter launched from an Atlas rocket. The Atlas rocket program started as an ICBM program. It was designed and built under Air Force contract. The same with Titan launch vehicles. It started as an ICBM program before becoming a launch vehicle program. Even the shuttle exists only because the military helped fund it (yea I know what a drag on NASA the shuttle has become but still).

    Let’s be honest, the space program exists because the U.S. military built the launch capability that the US space program needs. No argument you can come up with would ever have allowed NASA to convince the short sighted and self centered American public to spend billions developing the launch capability NASA has today thanks to the military. We very likely never would have made it to the moon without military backing of the early space program. Hubble never would have made it into orbit without the military backed launch capability we have. The shuttle would be far smaller and far less capable, if it even existed at all, without the military backing that went into its original production. Without the US military, Spaceship One just might be the greatest US space launch accomplishment. Spaceship One was a great accomplishment for private industry launch capability, but I for one am glad that we’ve done better than that so far.

    I know many of you won’t agree with this, but think about it and do a little research on the history of US and world space launch capability. Make sure you know how we’ve managed to get as far as we have so far.

  36. Dan Roy

    Just to get the money-thing in perspective, check this link:

  37. ndt

    DGKnipfer, nothing you said contradicts the idea that much of military spending is wasteful. The US Defense Department has a long history of tolerating cost overruns from contractors, and then going back and using those very same contractors again, with no increase in accountability. Yes, we still get good technology out of it, but at a far greater cost than is necessary. And we also get turkeys like the original Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Osprey, partly because of the sunk-cost fallacy but also because of good old-fashioned corruption.

  38. Sili

    Ah, but oversight and regulation would mean Big Government and we can’t have that, can we now?

    Don’t get me started. We’re reaching the end of the fiscal year at the school and just as they had to do at uni when I was there, everyone is scrambling to use up their budgets. Any surplus and you 1) have to pay it back, 2) will get that amount less next year.

    It’s ludicrous! How can anyone think this is a good way of managing reasearch and education?!

  39. James

    DGKnipfer: SpaceshipOne IS america’s greatest space achivement!

    Many of the people on this board were not born when man last walked on the moon, and the space shuttle is a lumbering white elephant because of the capacity to launch spy satilites that the military demanded, then refused to use.

  40. justcorbly


    1. SpaceShipOne barely merits description as a spaceship. Flying an airplane to 2000-3000 mph and then pointing the nose up and coasting is old tech.

    2. The shuttle that NASA wanted was rather different than the one NASA was directed to fly, and that had little, if anything, to do with the Pentagon’s need to launch reconnaissance satellites. NASA wanted a fully recoverable two-stage vehicle, about the size of a 747. Neither Congress nor the Nixon Administration could stomach the cost. Basically, NASA was given a dollar figure and told to come up with a shuttle to match. The design did include accommodations to the Pentagon’s needs, but Dod is not responsible for the Shutle’s compromised design.

    Human spaceflight will really begin when we realize that real spaceflight begins and ends at LEO. Getting to and from LEO is an unfortunate necessity.

  41. Veritas36

    I was at NASA for a long time. First it is very hard to estimate the cost of something that has never been done before! Jim Webb correctly estimated the cost of the Apollo program by doubling! von Braun’s estimate.
    Also, software productivity depends very much on the caliber of the person and the industry has no standards for them. (Plus NASA seemed often to lack knowledge of talent or not.)
    The most aggravating source of unnecessary expense was when Headquarters chose a solution and rammed it down the throat of the technical people in charge. It doubled the cost of that project.
    Politics gets in: very often NASA is directed to use embryonic technologies. (We do wish to and it is in the business interest and in the general interest.) But this is higher risk.
    Stopping costs overruns in all circumstances is a blunderbuss approach. Handle on a case-by-case basis; how bad is the overrun, and why did it happen?

  42. Expect to determine this wacky contraption, a cross in between a bicycle and elliptical trainer, cruising along the Esplanade this spring.


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