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.