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Between a Mars rock and a hard place

March 26, 2008

Here’s a link to this morning’s story, as covered by the Washington Post: Mars Rovers survive NASA’s budget crunch. It’s apparently been quite a week around the Mars program, as NASA tries to find money to cover an overrun on MSL.

It’s an age-old story around NASA, unfortunately, and it goes something like this:

1. Mission X overruns, or has a cost threat that will cause an overrun in the near future.

2. Mission X notifies Headquarters that they need more money.

3. Since NASA Headquarters does not print money (really!), there are only a few options available to HQ managers:

    • Cut other missions in development or in operations;
    • Cut R&A funds;
    • Postpone new mission starts; or
    • Ask Congress for additional funds.

      Let’s look at the options and their impacts, one by one.

      The first option, to cut other missions in development, is a difficult choice. Cutting funds already programmed into the annual budget of a mission in development adds risk, and likely just moves the costs into a future fiscal year, along with additional costs due to postponement of scheduled activities. These costs are expected and often outside the control of the project, as they range from launch delay penalties to unavailability of subcontractors to overtime for the engineers assembling the hardware and preparing the software. This also adds risk, as scheduled double shifts, a risk already accepted for mission development, may turn into triple shifts, where there is always a team of engineers at work.

      Cutting funds already programmed into the annual budget of an operating mission decreases the amount of science that can be done (which, generally, is a bargain at operating mission or extended mission costs, since the costs of hardware, launch vehicle, design, and assembly have already all been paid). This choice also, as in the first part of this option, may leave scientists and engineers unexpectedly unemployed.

      Reducing the amount of R&A funds is never a popular choice. Taking tens of millions of dollars (the typical amount of a flight mission overrun) from grant programs that typically award $50-$150k/year to each Principal Investigator would require a disproportionately large impact on those PIs involved, whether each grant award was reduced by some percentage, program officers were directed to make no new selections in the current year, or entire programs cancelled and the money withdrawn. This is a complicated option that would be difficult to implement and would affect many researchers across the board. It should be noted that this option may affect early career researchers disproportionately, as they are more likely to be supported by grants without the security of university tenure or NASA Center support.

      Postponing new mission starts is another disappointing approach to making funds suddenly available. The Astronomy Division has had to do this several times in the past few years; the most recent example is Terrestrial Planet Finder. The problem with this is, the postponed missions don’t get cheaper, and industrial costs don’t go down when a planned mission is postponed.

      The last option is to ask Congress for additional funds. For many reasons, which we won’t go into today, this option must be reserved for the most dire of circumstances or, conversely, the incredible excitement of potential new missions. Getting a new mission start is incredibly hard (as, perhaps, it should be), and it would be even more so if NASA also went back to Congress to ask for routine overruns of costs of a few million dollars. While losing that amount could devastate an R&A program, it simply isn’t much, on the scale of the NASA budget, the Defense budget, or the War in Iraq. Going to Congress is not an acceptable option.

      There is one more option that I didn’t mention previously, and that is asking the NASA Administrator to move money from another Directorate to the Science Mission Directorate. The big problem with this is that the door swings both ways; if the budgetary line between science and exploration at NASA were breached, any overrun in the shuttle or CEV programs could easily devour SMD R&A, operating missions, or new mission starts.

      It must be a tough week at NASA.  When a mission’s costs exceed its original estimates, there is no easy decision.

      4 Comments leave one →
      1. April 2, 2008 11:22 am

        Heidi, You’re right. I should have included that as a first option. I know that we certainly did employ that technique when I was at Headquarters. We even went so far as to say that there was no more money in the program; if enough funds could not be scraped up by acceptable mission descopes (staying above the performance floor), then we would take the mission to Termination Review.

      2. April 1, 2008 3:01 pm

        Darn. I wanted to edit my comment, but can’t. Anyway, there is one more thing I alluded to above, but didn’t focus on, and that is the science community, which is a critical element of the equation.

        The planetary science community historically has shown an unwillingness to give up any science to solve the fiscal problems at NASA – every time there are threats to budgets, scientists scream and call their congressional representatives, go to the press, etc. But giving something up may be the only choice, either in terms of descopes in mission capability (e.g., rovers become landers), science capability (fewer, less technologically complex instruments), or mission frequency. Every single one of us has to ask ourselves what we’re willing to give up for fiscal solvency – up to and including entire missions that would give us new data on whatever is our object of choice (asteroids, comets, Mars, Venus, outer planet satellites, etc).

      3. April 1, 2008 2:42 pm

        Hi Heidi,

        I’m not sure the Program Manager has the authority to initiate the cancellation process; usually that happens higher up the food chain at Headquarters. However, the general question is a valid one – and yes, someone@nasa CAN make such a decision (usually it would be the relevant AA or the Administrator). But that rarely occurs unless and until the overruns are particularly egregious, or the technical problems clearly cannot be overcome. There are several reasons why this is rare – I’ll try to convey a few, and I’m sure Susan and others can provide other examples

        Most missions overrun their budgets – it’s a fact of life when you’re building things that have never been built before. Your ability to stay on budget is only as good as your ability to predict what your costs will be. There are models that are used to predict mission budgets, but they are not always right, and even though they include “margin” for unforeseen expenses, they just can’t always foresee what will happen. In some cases, providers of hardware go out of business or stop making a critical part, or some piece of hardware simply fails when you thought it would work, and you have to find a way to work around it – these changes cost money. Sometimes these are what are referred to as “unknown unknowns” – the things you just never saw coming, but have to deal with (e.g., the actuator lubricant and heat shield problems on MSL). I would argue, as have others in the planetary community, that getting these cost models improved is a key factor in avoiding overruns. This is something we’ve pushed on regularly in meetings of the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council.

        NASA also has to contend with public opinion, Congress, and OMB. It is not a trivial thing to cancel a mission, or even descope an instrument (witness last summer’s drama over NASA’s decision not to provide more funds to the ChemCam instrument). You attract a lot of attention doing that, and it’s not usually good attention. Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars get spent planning and starting missions; canceling or descoping them on a regular basis, over reasons that may be out of the mission management’s control, would quickly lose NASA the support of all of the groups above, whereby “lose support” is not just a figurative term, but also a literal one. There’s an argument to be made for spending a little extra to make what has already been a huge investment a success rather than a failure (technically and in the public mind). However, it’s also fair to ask if there’s a point at which you’re throwing good money after bad because, for example, the chances of success are not improving. You ask if NASA can tell the mission manager and PI to descope the mission – in some cases, it may be possible, but you can be sure that the first thing that will happen is that the mission will throw off the science instruments. You can’t fly a spacecraft without a heat shield or an engine, but you can fly without a camera. But you saw how well that went over in the press and with the science community last summer. So the net result is that, practically speaking, it’s very difficult to descope the mission.

        In the case of MSL, I personally am horrified by the absolute dollar amount of the overruns and what those overruns will do to the Mars Program fiscally. I think the worst thing that could happen would be for Jim Green (Planetary Science Division Director) or Ed Weiler (new AA for SMD) to decide to cover those costs from elsewhere in the PSD budget – much of the rest of the community already resents the Mars Exploration Program, and if the MSL problems are solved at their expense, it will be a Very Bad Thing. But I do believe that MSL is still a viable mission – it is one of the most ambitious missions NASA has ever flown technologically, and the potential science payoff is exciting. Also, the technical hurdles probably pale in comparison to those that will be encountered getting humans to the Moon and Mars. If we simply give up every time we encounter financial hurdles, we won’t explore much of anything. But we should try to find a way to get better estimates of what those unknown unknowns will cost us, and plan our budgets accordingly, perhaps by flying fewer missions (although that will also meet resistance from the community).


      4. Heidi B. Hammel permalink
        March 31, 2008 2:15 am

        Hypothetically, the NASA Program Manager has another option. Tell the PI and Project Manager of the miscreant overrunning program: “Sorry, no more funding. You get what you get. If you can’t fit in that box, time for you to descope your mission.” If the mission cannot achieve its primary goals within its allocated budget, cancel it. Is there a reason this “tough-love” approach to cost overruns won’t work in practice?

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