TCS Daily

A New Sheriff In Town

By Rand Simberg - May 10, 2005 12:00 AM

New administrator Mike Griffin has apparently ridden into NASA town with guns blazing. Not surprisingly to anyone who's been following his career, he's a man in a hurry to break the nation out of the low earth orbit quagmire in which we've found (well, actually put) ourselves for the past three-plus decades, and he's not wasting any time in redirecting the space agency in what he perceives to be the best manner to do that.

Before his arrival, it had been widely expected that there would be two contract awards this summer for the so-called "Crew Exploration Vehicle" (CEV), which was to be our new means of getting into low earth orbit (and beyond) after retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010. This would have resulted in a flyoff of the two concepts in 2008, with a downselect to one to be flown with crew in 2014. But now he's announced that he wants to see hardware fly in 2006, with a first crewed flight at the end of the decade, to eliminate the "gap" between the end of the Shuttle flights and the beginning our new ability to get humans in to space that currently seems to concern many in Washington (never mind that no one seems concerned about the current "gap" since Columbia was destroyed in February 2003, during which our only means of getting to the International Space Station is via Russian vehicles).

Similarly, up until just a few days ago, industry had been widely expecting a procurement late this summer for a "Systems Engineering and Integration" (SE&I) contract to help NASA manage both the CEV and future hardware contracts necessarily to fulfill the president's Vision for Space Exploration. But last week, NASA announced that, while it appreciated all of the feedback that it had gotten from industry on this subject, it was going to manage them itself for now, thank you very much. One of the justifications for this decision was to rebuild the capability within the agency to do this kind of integration and contract management (apparently, in other words, to provide on-the-job training for NASA's civil servants, many of whom were in diapers when man last trod the lunar surface, if they were born at all). Dr. Griffin has also deferred anticipated Broad Area Announcements for new technology activities previously viewed as critical to future program success.

And of course, the subtext behind all of these events (and others, such as abruptly finishing up the "roadmapping" activity for planning NASA's future), is that the new administrator doesn't seem thrilled with the current plans, and perhaps the current management, of the program. The previous administrator, Sean O'Keefe, a former Secretary of the Navy, had brought in an admiral, Craig Steidle, to head up NASA's exploration office, and he brought with him many of the management techniques and philosophies that he had used as the manager of the Joint Strike Fighter program, including a concept called "spiral development," which was a means of continuously building on capabilities as a program moved through different phases and increasing levels of performance (e.g., low earth orbit operations, then lunar landings, then lunar bases). Now rumors are swirling that neither the admiral's plans nor (perhaps) the admiral himself are in favor with the new administrator, and that the entire approach is being revamped to achieve his goal of accelerating progress toward both retiring the Shuttle and getting on to points beyond.

As a result, there's a lot of chaos and uncertainty right now, both within NASA itself, and in the contractor community, which just a couple weeks ago had thought itself properly positioned for the new procurements to soon come out.

Is the new administrator on the right track? It's clearly too soon to say, but we should consider these changes in the context of history.

It's clear that there's a desire, and even a consensus (one mistaken in my opinion) to go "back to the future," in which we launch capsules on top of expendable launch vehicles -- the mode by which we successfully went to the moon thirty-five years ago. We never killed anyone that way (so the thinking goes, though we came close in Apollo XIII) and that newfangled reusable vehicle has been a death trap for fourteen astronauts, so it's time to return to the tried and true. Moreover, there are many who think that we need to replicate that era even more by developing a grossly heavy-lift vehicle, like the Saturn V, to get there. The new administrator seems to fall into this camp, so the chances of this being the ultimate selection have gone up dramatically in the last few weeks (pending, of course, the final approval of the president, per the new space transportation policy). Now he seems to be recapitulating the management approach of that era as well, with NASA directly managing the contractors without a separate systems engineering contractor.

The problem with this approach is that, to use a trite but useful phrase, that was then, this is now. We chose that approach because we were in a hurry to get to the Moon, because we had to beat the Russians, and price was no object. But now, as the president said in his announcement of the new policy, this is a vision, not a race. In addition, unlike then, NASA has to operate within a constrained budget for the foreseeable future. Will the technical and management approaches of yore be effective in the changed political and economic circumstances, and technology of the early twenty-first century?

Hang on to your seats; we have a new administrator, and we're going to find out.


Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his web log, Transterrestrial Musings.



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