“Relentless budget reduction pressures necessitate more dramatic program actions” – Brewster Shaw, Space Shuttle Program Manager, December 1994
Polls show that the general populace rates the Internal Revenue Service as the most disliked agency in the US Federal government. Among members of the US Civil Service, the agency is most disliked is the Office of Management and Budget. Some years ago I pondered what it must be like to be a member of the OMB. Charged with getting the most value from every federal dollar (what taxpayer could be against that?), the OMB challenges each and every federal agency and program to justify their existence and their budget. Every year they ask every bureaucrat ‘Can’t you do that for less money?’ Every year they look for new ways to decrease the deficit by decreasing spending. Every day of the year they nag, scold, harass, and browbeat each and every government program to find ways to do business more efficiently. From the outside that makes great sense. From the inside it makes you obnoxious and disliked.
Most program managers, when challenged to save some reasonably small amount, say 5% in a year’s budget, have the ego to think that they probably can do that. Of course, the OMB will be back next year to ask for another 5% reduction. Or 10%. Hey, if it was that easy to save 5%, surely they can do more!
It is understandable that most people blame the OMB for the plight of the space program. I don’t. Dealing with the OMB is just part of normal business for federal agencies and their management. Remember not to promise things that you can’t deliver; that should be rule #1.
So I have sympathy for the OMB.
Well, not really. Sorry guys, it’s hard to be unloved.
Back to basics: the shuttle cost too much to operate. No argument. The intention, back in 1972 or so was to lower the cost of putting payload into low earth orbit significantly. Compared with the Saturn V or the other expendable launch vehicles of the day, the shuttle did decrease cost per pound to orbit; but not nearly as significantly as what was wanted. So from day 1, the national leadership (and their minions, the OMB), beat up the space shuttle program management to lower costs. In the early 1980’s it still seemed possible that increasing flight rate and decreasing launch costs might be possible – not to the levels envisioned a decade earlier, but by a significant amount. Then came the loss of Challenger and it was clear to everybody that this was an experimental, fragile system that would cost more to fly.
There is a lot of discussion about lack of vision in the space program. I would submit that the space program has had the same vision for over 50 years; the one promulgated by Willy Ley and Werner von Braun and Walt Disney in the 1950s. The one made famous by Colliers magazine and the artistic work of Charles Bonestall. To wit: an infrastructure to explore and colonize the solar system; a winged shuttle to low earth orbit, a space station as waypoint to the planets, and a fleet of planetary vehicles to carry great expeditions to Mars and other destinations in the solar system. Scratch every blue ribbon panel recommendation since then and you find the same vision, just variations on the theme, schedule, and . . . ahem . . . how to pay for it. Flexible path is just the latest blue ribbon panel name for this vision.
NASA was devastated when President Nixon, just after the last moon landing, killed the proposed Mars program and the space station, leaving only the shuttle. OK, it was the first step, but all true space cadets knew it was only the first step. So maybe, just maybe, we all believed that if we did this shuttle thing right and make no mistakes, the next step will be approved. The ‘next logical step’ being a space station. I can remember waiting, on July 4, 1982, in Mission Control after we landed STS-4 in California to meet President Reagan. We had great hopes that he would announce the space station program. We were disappointed again that day. It would be almost four more years before Freedom was announced.
When President Clinton entered the White House, his policy advisors made it know that they intended to cancel Space Station Freedom. So NASA Administrator Dan Goldin had to make a Faustian bargain. First, the Russians had to be included – and the myth established that they were not on the critical path. Everybody below the rank of Deputy Administrator knew to be an outright falsehood. Second, the cost of the space station development would not be allowed to increase the agency budget. Third, the agency budget had to be reduced by almost one quarter. All of that or no space station, no next logical step; and we would be left with a space shuttle without a destination. There is a lot of criticism in the ranks that Goldin made a poor deal. I think he probably got the best deal he could. Anyway, we kept the space station and gained in international partner – which paid off in the longer run in ways that we could not have imagined in 1992.
This resulted in the incredible and relentless pressure that was put on the entire NASA budget including the space shuttle. Shuttle program manager after program manager were squeezed to make the program more efficient, cheaper. And the continuing, grinding pressure to decrease costs paid off. Between 1992 and 2002 the annual operating budget of the shuttle program per year (adjusted for inflation) decreased by 45% – almost half. Where did that money come from? It came from hard work to squeeze out inefficiencies and duplication. It continued with harder work to eliminate activities that only slightly added to the program. Then it continued with even harder work to re examine every operation with an eye to its “requirement”. (See my last post “The Tyranny of Requirements”).
In the decade of squeezing, a lot was cut out. Some of that was good and necessary. Some of it was, well, counterproductive. See the graph that John Muratore made after the Columbia accident. SE&I Decreases Systems Engineering and Integration plays a vital role in the safety of any highly complex high risk operation. But vitally important functions were no longer performed when the personnel levels fell too low. Lambert Austin who headed SE&I in those days fought tooth and nail against these cuts; he lost. Then after Columbia, NASA management skewered Lambert as if it was his fault for losing to their earlier ideas. After all the reasonable reductions were made, the requests became just plain silly. Mel Peterson from NASA HQ browbeat Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore to privatize the shuttle; one of the dumbest ideas ever floated. After repeated beatings, Ron responded by giving them a plan to do what they wanted. It never got implemented. I can remember a discussion in mid-2002 to eliminate maintenance on one of our crosswind lakebed runways so the program could reduce its budget by less than $10,000. Now is that a reasonable requirements reduction? I just remember all those shuttle deorbit decisions when we were worried about the winds shifting around and the forecast was uncertain. More than one day I was glad to have options to land our billion dollar spaceship safely on its one and only gliding landing. Who was right on that one? We never used that lakebed runway. Like insurance, we paid for it and never used it. Was a good money savings idea to eliminate that $10,000 bill?
This is probably the point to trot out that hoary old story about how to cook a frog. If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, he will immediately jump out. If you put a frog in a pot of cool water and start heating it slowly, he will never jump out. We all live in a world where there are slowly trending situations; we can’t deal with them all at once, you have to make choices. Where do you draw that line?
In the end, I am convinced that the “relentless budget reduction pressures” were a major cause of the Columbia accident that cost us a crew and an orbiter. Not the only cause, but a major cause.
So where do you draw that line, between prudent and acceptable expenses and extravagance? What do you do when you depend on a vehicle that just flat costs more to fly than you can afford? Across several administrations, across multiple program managers, across the terms of more than one NASA administrator, these reductions slowly ground out. Good people, trying very hard to do what they thought was right, missing something critical, resulting in a tragedy. Like some classical Greek tragedy, in hindsight it seems inevitable.
When my children were small I read them bedtime stories; it was always easy to pick out who was the hero and who was the villain. But when you read adult stories – real life stories – the heroes always have flaws, the villains can exhibit admirable traits. Real life is not black and white, but gray. We all need to learn how to discern the shades.
And when to draw the line.