I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! -Howard Beale

Let me tell you a little story. Nine years ago, I was living in California, and I had a car accident. The damage to my car was pretty bad; the first estimate I got said that it would take about $3800 to fix it, more than the entire value of my (then) 11-year-old Volkswagen, and about one-and-a-half months’ salary for me at the time.

What I decided to do was — I hope — what any reasonable person would do. I had just enough repair work done so that the car was drivable, and then I took it around to different shops. Why? I wanted to get the best quality work done for the price I was paying, and I knew that some places would wind up charging more. I wound up choosing Chan’s Body Shop (which apparently still exists!), and saved myself over $1000 (including the original ‘get-it-drivable’ work) from the original estimate.

Now, let me pose the following hypothetical question to you: what do you think I should have done if Chan’s body shop made me pay them up front, and then when they had spent all of my money, told me that they needed an extra $1500 to finish fixing my car?

You’d better believe I’d do something about it! At best, it’s dishonest and incompetent business. At worst, it’s fraud and extortion. Either way, I wouldn’t stand for that sort of behavior in my own life.

So why do you accept it from your space agency? Applying for NASA funding is extremely competitive, with contracts usually going to the organization that promises the most science in the right area for the cheapest amount of money. Yet, unlike in the real world, these projects are never completed within their budgets. Mars Science Laboratory is over half a billion over budget already, the budget for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, has ballooned to over 5 billion dollars, and the proposed “flagship” for manned spaceflight, the new Ares-I rockets, has cost NASA over 9 billion dollars, will take a total of about $100 billion until it’s completed to design specifications, and has very little to offer.

So, to many people’s chagrin and to my delight, Obama has cancelled the Ares I project. From the BBC article:

in his federal budget request issued on Monday, Mr Obama said the project was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”.

It was draining resources from other US space agency activities, he added.

He plans instead to turn to the private sector for launch services.

Why am I so happy about this? Because the project is over budget, it is behind schedule, and it is hugely expensive and lacking in innovation.

But my hope is that this will do more. My hope is that it will force those applying to NASA for funding to be honest and competent in their budget proposals. If you wouldn’t accept this kind of behavior from your auto mechanic then why would you accept it from your space agency and those whom it employs?

“Oh, you paid me to do this job and I took all your money but I didn’t finish the job. Can I have another couple billion dollars a year for the next decade while I figure it out?”

Umm… no. And I hope that this sets a precedent that nobody else can do this, either. It’s one of the worst forms of incompetence out there, and the fact that this behavior has been treated as acceptable by NASA administrators for so long has really restrained the ability of NASA to meet its mission statement:

“[to] pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

So why am I optimistic? Because the commercial sector has the potential to get people excited about space in a way that NASA has failed to do. Want to go to space? Commercial ventures will get you there someday soon.

Last week, I also wrote about how the Constellation program was doomed because it offered no ambitious, awe-inspiring goals. Well, here’s an awe-inspiring goal. Ever heard of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay? They were the first humans to summit Mount Everest.

What could be more ambitious than that? Climbing the highest mountain in the Solar System, Mars’ Olympus Mons.

There’s already a mountaineering contest, complete with awards, set up for anyone who wants to accomplish this. Could this happen within my lifetime?

Could someone set the deep-sea-diving record for depth by drilling through the ice on Europa? There’s no prize set up for this, but would there be possible commercial interest?

Already, I find myself more inspired than spending $100 billion to redo something we already did more than 40 years ago. We are explorers who push the frontiers of what we can accomplish as a species. Let’s push forward together instead of trying to relive the past, and let’s make sure we tell everyone at NASA that they need to be honest, realistic and competent with their proposals. No excuses; just do better from now on. And while many other will lament the passing of Constellation, I’m optimistic that this is the step in the right direction for NASA. Let’s hope they make the most of it.

Comments

  1. #1 simon
    February 1, 2010

    fuck you.

  2. #2 ccpetersen
    February 1, 2010

    Commentor Number 1: take your own eloquent advice.

    I think this article has some valuable insights, but of course, it takes someone with reading comprehension skills to understand the nuances.

  3. #3 David
    February 1, 2010

    Damn straight, Ethan.

    I’m happy to fund expensive science experiments, and I love astronomy, but I can’t see any compelling science being done by our currently planned manned program. Clearly the expensive manned program has been siphoning off funding from scientifically better unmanned projects. We learned more from one Rover than we did from a dozen Shuttles, and at a fraction of the cost.

    At last, we’ve got an administration making decisions based on scientific merit and level-headed cost-benefit analysis, rather than backing the superficially glitzy manned program.

  4. #4 ccpetersen
    February 1, 2010

    Ethan,

    I think that some budget overruns are to be expected in space exploration — it’s one place (basic research, etc) where you don’t always know exactly what something’s going to cost until you get into the project. So,lighten up a little — but I do think you make some good points about exploration.

    And, I’d like to point out that the commercial sector does often face cost overruns… look at the development of new planes, new high-speed internet access, etc. And, think about this: the commercial sector intersects with NASA and is often involved in some of the very behaviour you decry. Again, sometimes these things are unavoidable.

  5. #5 NoAstronomer
    February 1, 2010

    I’m not optimistic, and I’ll tell you why.

    I believe I see your point and I largely agree with it. You are the only person I’ve seen commenting on this story who recognizes that the components of Constellation program were primarily built by public companies. These would be the same companies we’re now expecting to pick up the slack and build us a launch vehicle that is certified for human spaceflight.

    Where I disagree is that canceling Constellation will make the aerospace companies undergo some sort of radical transformation. No, they’ll continue to take as money as they can and deliver as little as possible. That’s what companies do.

    Worse, the president has removed the one clear set of goals we had and replaced them with a vague notion of researching ways to do things better. If there’s anything companies feeding from the trough of taxpayers money love it’s cash for doing ‘Research’, where even if they fail spectacularly it’s all good because ‘hey! we learned something’. Finding 9,000 ways to not build a light-bulb is one thing. Finding ways to not build rockets at $100 million a pop is another.

    And not only do I think that the aerospace industry will continue to take every cent they can, expecting NASA to be able to manage this mish-mash and set meaningful targets and milestones is just wishful thinking.

    @simon : Is that a proposition?

  6. #6 Vagueofgodalming
    February 1, 2010

    unlike in the real world, these projects are never completed within their budgets

    I don’t know what ‘real world’ you live in, but it ain’t the one I inhabit.

    Mending cars can be done to budget, because it’s been done thousands of times before and people know what to do and how much it will take. Innovative projects always overrun.

  7. #7 lisa
    February 1, 2010

    Your response is interesting and I don’t disagree with all you say, however your response also doesn’t provide any suggestion that would solve the major problem caused by canceling the lunar missions. The main reason that most of scientists i know felt a lunar mission was necessary was to have an opportunity to have first hand experience with the full characterization or and the long term effects on electronic equipment of the cosmic radiation environment. We have limited data from probes we’ve never gotten back, and we have some data from the International Space Station and satellites but none of that data is really that relevant as they’re still significantly with in the magnetic influence of earth. Going to mars would be awesome… but before we can send a manned mission that far, the reality is we need to understand the space radiation environment a lot better. We can’t just skip these steps.

  8. #8 Ethan Siegel
    February 1, 2010

    Someone asked me what I would tell the children about this cancellation. My response is below.

    Let’s send kids the same message we’re sending to adults: *going to Mars is hard.* Keeping humans alive — long-term — in space is hard. NASA doesn’t have the resources to do it alone, and the “old” technology of rocket launches isn’t going to give us a long-term presence on another world.

    We need to go in a new direction, and we will need entrepreneurs to help take us there. It’s time for everyone to not just ask “what do you want to do?” but also “How are you going to get there?” It’s a tough question, but the answer is *not* “NASA will do it for us.”

  9. #9 Sphere Coupler
    February 1, 2010

    New direction?…Space elevators, but probably not the design being pursued presently.The basic physics constraints are a detriment to it’s design.

  10. #10 Clayton Summers
    February 1, 2010

    I think NASA can do a very good job doing basic science, but we will never have serious expansion into space until private industry decides that there is serious money to be made there.

    The United States was at its most vibrant during the years that it was expanding into new frontiers, whether it was the physical frontier of the west or the economic frontiers presented after World War II. We need a new frontier. We need to expand onto space. The argument that we need to live within the resources available to us does not hold water. There are limitless resources available, we just have to go get them.

    I kind of hope that the Chinese shutdown access to their rare earth metals. Perhaps that would give us the incentive to go after to riches of the asteroids and make space exploration a way of life, not a luxury that we can no longer afford.

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    February 1, 2010

    The reason that these R&D budget are always over budget is because of how they are awarded, always to the lowest bidder. Up here in Massachusetts we had a large civil engineering project called the Big Dig.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_big_dig

    Originally estimated at $2.8 billion it cost over $8 billion (in 1982 dollars not counting interest or inflation).

    Why did it cost so much? Because of how it was bid. How much the project would cost depended on what had to be done. Much of the cost was to put the expressway underground. What does it cost to do that? It depends on what it is like underground. The bids were submitted before there were any borings to determine what the soil conditions were like. Who ever assumed the easiest conditions could design for the easiest conditions and then make the lowest bid. When the borings were done, and they showed that the conditions designed for were bogus, then the intervention had to be redesigned (at more expense), and the new design was always more expensive than the budget called for. Everyone in the design process knew this. The politicians liked it because it gave them a low initial cost estimate. The contractors liked it because it gave them more work.

    In Ethan’s example it would be like a car shop giving him an estimate before they looked at his car, getting him to agree, then starting work before they knew how much it would cost, get the whole car apart, figure out what is wrong, find out how much the parts cost and then present Ethan with a bill for the labor to take the car apart, diagnose the problem, and get a list of the parts. Now Ethan can either pay for the parts and labor to get his car fixed, or he can pay for the labor to take his car apart and take his car home in pieces.

    NASA is completely hamstrung by politics. The reason for the Challenger disaster was because the joint between the sections leaked past the O-rings. The reason the rockets were in sections was so they could be transported by rail from Utah (thank you Orrin Hatch). A supplier in Florida was prepared to make them in one welded piece and deliver them by barge.

  12. #12 Nathan Myers
    February 1, 2010

    Mars, again? What a dump.

    Phobos is interesting.

  13. #13 Dave Hodgkinson
    February 1, 2010

    In what world is “to summit” a verb?

  14. #14 Nora
    February 2, 2010

    Um, ours.

    –verb (used without object) 7. to take part in a summit meeting.
    8. to reach a summit: summited after a 14-hour climb.

    –verb (used with object) 9. to reach the summit of.

    (from dictionary.com)

  15. #15 Anonymous
    February 2, 2010

    Budgetary accuracy is only possible if the task that you are budgeting for is a task that you have done multiple times and as such have experience that goes beyond the theoretical, beyond a proof of concept, beyond the 1st implementation. It is a fallacy to think that one can accuratly budget and timeline a project that deals with inherently new technology applications and new system integration. Any competent project and program manager will tell you this and the childish car mechanic analgoies just are that … childish and not real world.

  16. #16 MadScientist
    February 2, 2010

    I’d just like to point out that NASA has *always* worked with the commercial sector. However, you can hardly say that companies like Lockheed have any competition (just a little pretense to competition). Since the current rules (adopted shortly after WW2) prevent NASA from freely shopping around with providers outside the USA, they’ve pretty much been locked into contracts with a few big companies. Being good capitalists “charge whatever you can get away with” is part of the problem. Another part of the problem is that companies will not necessarily come up with an honest quote – they’ll quote what they think will win the contract then demand more money later; it’s an old tradition in the business. Another part of the problem is that things are so complex that you could very well provide what you believed to be a fair quote and then the details jump out of the shadows and drive the cost up. It doesn’t help any that management also squander so much on unnecessary managers, promotional ads, lobbying – all sorts of stuff not directly relevant to getting the job done. Just think of the landscaping budget in the cancelled Superconducting Supercollider project. Did we really need a beautifully manicured lawn above the tunnel? Anyway, there’s no one source of problems and even if all parties did their best and had the best of intentions, I doubt that running late and over budget will disappear. I think everyone tends to be too optimistic as well, so the propagandist bleating about a “cheap, fast, and safe way to do X” is also to blame for unrealistic expectations. Just look at all the hype about how wonderful the new ‘solution’ is. In another 2 years (by which it is currently claimed by some we’ll be back in space with new vehicles) I wouldn’t be surprised to see people screaming that the current plans shouldn’t be scrapped and that we should head back to the drawing board. It’s rather comical – you get the distinct impression that the people running NASA don’t know what they want to do and don’t know how to do it.

  17. #17 MadScientist
    February 2, 2010

    @lisa: Radiation in space is very well understood. In the years leading up to the Appollo 11 launch there was an absolutely enormous global effort to learn as much as we can about radiation while we were still on the earth’s surface. There were numerous solar observatories set up around the world and run in conjunction with the USAF – those observatories had top class gear built for the job and they operated 24 hours a day every single day of the year (gather data by day, process data day and night). I can barely remember half the instrumentation at some of the sites (that was so long ago and there was an awful lot of radio instrumentation in addition to the optical telescopes with their film cameras and various high-resolution filters). In the past 2 decades there have been a few missions to the sun; in the past 4 decades we have sent many probes far out into the solar system; many of them were instrumented to study the “solar wind” (or else radio transmissions exploited to obtain data on it) and where radiation exposure is of concern for particular experiments or instruments, the spacecraft have been instrumented to measure radiation exposure.

  18. #18 Dave S
    February 2, 2010

    I totally agree with MadScientist (#16) – the problem is not just within the NASA bureaucracy, but also within the commercial contractors (who pocketed most of the 4+ billion $ overrun in JWST?), with labs (JPL cough cough), and with politicians (e.g. the 20 billion dollars wasted on space station no one but congress wanted).

    When some one in NASA (e.g. Alan Stern) does try to crack down on a commercial contractor or a lab that is egregiously over budget they go crying to their Senators or Congressmen to make the pressure go away.

    Yes, its a problem for NASA, and this needs to be fixed, but the problem is wider and more entrenched than just in NASA.

  19. #19 Mr T
    February 2, 2010

    from the BBC article:

    “In addition to the $9bn spent on the programme to date, Nasa will have to spend a further $2.5bn to close it completely.”

    Now a quote from Ethan:

    “My hope is that it will force those applying to NASA for funding to be honest and competent in their budget proposals. If you wouldn’t accept this kind of behavior from your auto mechanic then why would you accept it from your space agency and those whom it employs?”

    Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I don’t see how this sends a strong signal that companies are expected to be honest and competent in their budget proposals. It’s certainly better than spending many billions more on it for no good reason, but there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping others from doing the same sort of thing again. Apparently one can get $2.5B just for closing a useless, overly-expensive program. Other than asking for a refund (which will not happen), perhaps there’s no way to avoid wasting billions of dollars. In other words, I’m not very hopeful.

  20. #20 Captain Obvious
    February 2, 2010

    “they need to be honest, realistic and competent with their proposals”

    Holy crap. It’s a nice ideal but I’ve yet to see any large organisation (government run or private corporation) manage to present any proposal that manages to be any of those three things, let alone all three. There is nothing marketing and executive management love more than promising the earth, delivering a rock and then laying any blame at the door of their underlings.

    Throw in the prospect of billions in government money and the opportunity for lobbying groups to get to work then the prospect of that happening is so remote you’re more likely to see Satan skating to work whilst pigs soar overhead.

  21. #21 ScentOfViolets
    February 2, 2010

    I think that noting the cost overruns without acknowledging the reality of Congressional funding kind of misses the point.

    In a rational world, funds would be allocated each and every year for research and development of a vehicle that has the sought-after characteristics of Ares. It wouldn’t be laid out baldly and done in one go.

    But this isn’t a rational world, and Congress refuses to act responsibly. NASA as no choice but to act as if they know exactly how to build a particular piece of hardware, and then return hat in hand for additional funds. Note that this is still R&D (you can’t get around the engineering realities), but the upshot is that your research budget has now been named “cost overruns”. Not good PR. But what choice does NASA have? It’s not as if being up front and honest will get them the money. Quite the contrary . . .

  22. #22 NickBMorgan
    February 2, 2010

    I agree with everything Ethan said.

    The NASA of today is not the organization that put men on the Moon.

    During the the period between 1960 and 1975, NASA designed, built, and launched six man-rated spacecraft types on five different launchers. Since 1975, the year of my birth, only one.

    Constellation was nothing but re-inventing the wheel. Let private Aerospace develop the next generation of Spacecraft, and rent space to NASA.

    Or better yet, give Burt Rutan $10 billion and watch while he puts a man on Mars.

  23. #23 Mu
    February 2, 2010

    A lot of the “closing” costs is for contracts awarded that are now going to produce a report for the circular file. I personally have two NASA contracts for lunar operations research that are awarded and funded, and we were getting really nice results, but I also know that probably no one in my lifetime will actually use the materials we’re working on. Nothing new so, I had the same happen 9 years ago on some recycling research that the new government wasn’t going to pursue further after the contracts run out.

  24. #24 The Backpacker
    February 2, 2010

    The thing I always wonder about is why they did away with the Saturn V. I mean it was a mind bogglingly powerful vehicle and never lost a payload. The Aries series seems like a step back from 50 years ago. Maybe we can just start building Saturn V’s again.

  25. #25 MadScientist
    February 2, 2010

    @Mr T: As Mu pointed out, a lot of that will go into paying for a final report on various projects. Part is also contractual (guaranteed minimum % of contract awarded on signing). Many government contractors demand a minimum % to be awarded on cancellation of contracts because government agencies have a nasty reputation for saying “we will do X” and then “oh, we decided not to – so screw you if you lost money in the deal”. In many cases the minimum award is 80% of the contract.

    I like Captain Obvious’ comment about blame. Anyone who’s been in the space business will have to laugh at what he wrote; I’d lost count of the number of projects (especially sub-contracts) which are an obvious setup to blame someone else for cost overruns and delays. Some requests for tenders look OK until you start talking to people, then you find out the people advertising don’t have enough money, don’t have the full specs (they don’t know what they want), and they want it about 2 weeks prior to signing the contract – and if *you* are silly enough to sign such a contract and can’t deliver, that could be as much as $50k per day in penalties (and if your contract is only for $300k, WTF). If you build or test components for a system you’d better have all your documentation in order because if anything goes wrong you can bet the folks who gave you that contract will do their best to blame you for the fault. You literally have dozens of the world’s biggest egos (and my own personal opinion is that they’re all incompetent boobs) trying to phone you all day to abuse you.

  26. #26 Markk
    February 4, 2010

    Re Saturn V. I’ve talked to a few of the folks that helped design and build the Saturn and one thing they said which I was astounded by was that they were happy at the end of Apollo – because they thought if we had gone on much longer there would have been a catastrophic failure. Think Apollo 13 in first, second or third stages. I could have sworn I saw something like that in print also, but cursory search doesn’t find it.

    Not saying the Saturn was horrible or anything, but it was designed and built quickly. We were lucky. People who think it was some kind of reliable tank of a rocket are somewhat misled.

  27. #27 MadScientist
    February 5, 2010

    In other news:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8500535.stm

    BAE fined for conspiring to commit fraud against the US government – except of course it wasn’t worded that way since they agreed to pay up. Unfortunately the whole space industry is full of the same, which is why I’m happy to see companies like SpaceX coming in – my chief complaint is that unlike Boeing and Lockheed, SpaceX currently only has the capability for launching microsatellites into low earth orbit (and with their small launch numbers, the success rate is hardly inspiring).

  28. #28 mrlqban
    February 8, 2010

    To cancel a project for the main reasons that you mentioned above is understood. But let’s be realistic here, to do what? To be without a replacement exploration plan? To spend money on climate change research? You’ve got to be kidding me. This decision is a step backwards no matter how you look at it if you are not going to utilize the resources for something more ambitious.

  29. #29 daedalus2u
    February 8, 2010

    My understanding that the target reliability for the Apollo moon missions were 90% to achieve mission objectives and 99% for astronaut survival.

    There were about 20 missions, and 2 failures. Apollo 1 killed all hands, Apollo 13 got them back to Earth safely.

  30. #30 Haydon
    February 8, 2010

    This story sounds somewhat similar to the recent government proposal for health care legislation…….pay taxes starting in Year 1 for a health care overhaul that doesn’t go into effect until Year 3, and whose costs, scope and implementation is rather speculative at the beginning of Year 1.

  31. #31 Daleinaz
    February 22, 2010

    Ethan, your car repair analogy is seriously flawed: they have repaired hundreds of cars similar to yours before, they know what the parts cost, etc. We have never gone to Mars before, so we really can’t have a +/- 50% estimate of the cost. Fixed-price bids may be great for road-building, or purchasing uniforms, but for research and development, not so much.

    Years ago, I read that Italy took bids, threw out the highest bid (on the grounds that he was gouging), threw out the lowest bid (on the grounds that he couldn’t do a good job), the found the average of all the remaining bids, and picked the one that was closest to the average. (Of course, this assumes more than three bids. . .) My guess is they actually spent about the same amount as picking the lowest bidder and paying overruns, and got it done faster to boot.

    Our system is perfectly tuned to produce the results we are getting. If you want better results, you need to re-tune the system.

    @daedalus2u, if you look into the Apollo 1 fire, you will find that the contractor specifically warned NASA not to run the test the way they did, because of the fire risk.

  32. #32 Michael
    February 27, 2010

    Public-private partnerships on large scale projects all suffer from the same problem: once the project has started and time and money have been spent, the public side, that needs the final product, can not walk away.

    At the same time the private side can simply (threaten to) close up shop and, unless they are run by complete idiots, has at that point already extracted a profit or at least some CEO salaries from the venture.

    The public side then has only the option to bail out the private company and in the end spends more money than originally planned.

    For just two high-profile examples of this from the last months look at the Airbus A400M or Taiwan High Speed Rail.

  33. #33 refurbished cubicles
    June 14, 2010

    A lot of the “closing” costs is for contracts awarded that are now going to produce a report for the circular file. I personally have two NASA contracts for lunar operations research that are awarded and funded, and we were getting really nice results, but I also know that probably no one in my lifetime will actually use the materials we’re working on. Nothing new so, I had the same happen 9 years ago on some recycling research that the new government wasn’t going to pursue further after the contracts run out.

  34. #34 aa
    June 14, 2010

    Ethan, your car repair analogy is seriously flawed: they have repaired hundreds of cars similar to yours before, they know what the parts cost, etc. We have never gone to Mars before, so we really can’t have a +/- 50% estimate of the cost. Fixed-price bids may be great for road-building, or purchasing uniforms, but for research and development, not so much.refurbished cubicles

  35. Ethan, your car repair analogy is seriously flawed: they have repaired hundreds of cars similar to yours before, they know what the parts cost, etc. We have never gone to Mars before, so we really can’t have a +/- 50% estimate of the cost. Fixed-price bids may be great for road-building, or purchasing uniforms, but for research and development, not so much.