Solutions to NASA Management Problems

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a sense of drift to our space program over the last several years” President Barack Obama

NASA’s ongoing inability to meet schedules, control costs, and prevent cancellation of projects is caused by their unwillingness to resolve the agencies internal problems. Internal problems that have been festering for years and must be addressed before NASA can again significant contribute to expanding mankind’s knowledge of the space frontier. This report identifies the problems and recommends solutions to stop the “drift to our space program” into oblivion.

Identifying the problems:

  • NASA has dysfunctional management. The “One NASA” problem has never been solved and each NASA center continues to operate like an independent “fiefdom”. Program costs soar because there is no accountability for failure. The objective is get the program funded with the belief that Congress will provide for cost overrun rather than cancel the program.
  • Manned spaceflight operations cost are excessive and consume too much of NASA’s resources. NASA has no incentive to reduce manned launch operation costs.
  • Technology development programs have been neglected for decades and NASA today is technologically bankrupt. The troubled “Apollo on Steroids” Constellation Program’s development problems are the results of trying to build a 21st century space transportation system with 20th century technology.

Who is really in charge at NASA?

The President makes three political appointments to NASA: the Administrator, Assistance Administrator, and the Inspector General. Too often these appointees are unwilling or unprepared to challenge the NASA civil servant senior managers who have their own agendas. The conflict in the NASA Inspector General Office leading to the resignation of the Inspector General typifies the problem and the damage it has done to the agency.

Senior members of Congress with NASA oversight also contribute to the problem when they use their position to promote agendas that dilute the primary strategic plan for the Agency or continue to support programs that have failed to meet their development goals and have exceeded budget limits. The internal agency resistances to change the cultural impairment are major factors why many qualified political candidates refuse to accept appointment to NASA.

NASA Administrator

Must have the unique qualification of a Washington politician, engineer, scientist, and program manager with the ability to determine what passes the test of being both feasible and realistic.

The Administrator must have “independent” advisors who can challenge the “entrenched” NASA civil service managers. The general rule in today’s NASA is to tell the Administrator what you want him to hear and not what he needs to know.

NASA Inspector General

The NASA Inspector General Office has the NASA oversight responsibility; however this office is plagued by internal dissension and its technical evaluation capability is virtually nonexistent. The Inspector General must have outside independent evaluator(s) on technical issues. The Inspector General must also identify to the Administrator those project managers whose management decisions created program problems. In general, accountability of senior management doesn’t exist at today’s NASA.

The President must appoint a NASA inspector generals whose background knowledge relates to the agency…not just government career bureaucrats. To have accountability, there must be responsible oversight.

NASA Office of the Chief Engineer

This office must become the “eyes and ears” for the Administrator. The NASA chief engineer must be the administrator’s must trusted advisor and not necessarily a career civil service employee. The Administrator must provide this office with the resources to serve as the agency’s independent internal evaluator of proposed projects and monitor of existing projects. Each NASA’s center chief engineer office must serve as the coordinator agent for using the resources of their office in evaluating that center’s projects and report directly to the Headquarter Chief Engineer. They will have no allegiance to the center director. All evaluations will be public record. The peer pressure of internal monitoring by the NASA Chief Engineer will be the most effective mechanism the Administrator can have.

The Office of the Chief Engineer must be used as the training ground for future executive program managers for Senior Executive Service positions. Invaluable management experience can be obtained by appointing promising candidates to the Chief Engineer Office and rotate them around the various centers to gain insight into program management and each center’s capability. NASA’s management creditability problems can be attributed to the lack of extensive experience in project management. This process solves that inexperience problem and addresses the “One NASA” issue by creating a NASA senior management team with knowledge and a relationship with other NASA centers.

NASA Advisory Council

The NASA Administrator current appoints the members of this “advisory” council. This appointment policy defeats the objective of providing independent unbiased advice for the Administrator. Public input to the Council is not permitted and that must be corrected. Council members have been removed for issuing proclamations unfavorable to the Administrator position. This policy has been detrimental to the oversight of the Agency.

The NASA Advisory Council must be appointed by the executive branch and report to the President and Congress and not be subservient to the NASA administrator. The Council must also serve as forum where NASA employees and contractor can voice concern on NASA programs and policies without fear of management reprisal.

NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel

This panel effectiveness has been negated by the appointment of members with limited technology knowledge.

For Example:

Safety Experts Call for Shuttle Shutdown (Source: Orlando Sentinel , 4/17/2009)
Saying NASA is at a critical crossroads, independent safety experts have called for the agency to stay the course and shut down the shuttle program after nine remaining missions. Keeping NASA’s shuttle fleet flying beyond 2010 would endanger astronauts and sap money from efforts to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020, the group said. “Continuing to fly the shuttle not only would increase the risk to crews, but also could jeopardize the future U.S. exploration program by squeezing available resources,” the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said in its latest annual report, released Thursday. The panel was created by Congress after the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire killed three astronauts

These are the same “experts” that said they “didn’t do tech analyses” when requested to investigate the safety of Ares I. Their call for shuttle shutdown was based on a non-existence safety evaluation of the two transportation system.

It is recommended that membership on the ASAP consist of aerospace engineers and they not be appointed by the NASA administrator.

NASA Credibility Issue

GAO: The GAO said NASA missions faced “persistent cost growth and schedule slippage.” Little seems to have changed. Since 2006, NASA has broken the bank on 10 of 12 major projects.