Saturday, 5 March 2005

How Not to Run a Space Programme

I've blogged before about my opinion that the Hubble is past its use-by date, and is better "mended with a new 'un" than repaired.

I'm still of this view, but it would be nice to see the numbers that confirm my initial analysis. I thought we had them, after all, NASA has stubbornly refused to go along with popular opinion and try a repair. I naturally assumed that they'd done a bit more research than I had.

From SpaceDaily :
NASA officials have claimed they performed a risk analysis before deciding to cancel the last space-shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, but no such analysis was ever done.

Worse, sources told UPI's Space Watch that NASA also has ignored at least one proposal to reduce the risk of sending a shuttle crew to Hubble - in order to justify its decision.

Over the past few weeks, several NASA officials have stated publicly the agency's decision to cancel further servicing to Hubble was made on safety issues alone, not cost.

At a budget briefing Feb. 7, Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space operations, explained how cost was not a factor in the decision to cancel the shuttle servicing mission, which was made public by former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe on Jan. 16, 2004.

"I don't really think from a space operations standpoint ... or in the mind of the administrator it was a matter of cost," Readdy said.

Fred Gregory, the acting NASA administrator, emphasized this position in testimony before the House Science Committee on Feb. 17.

"Cost was not an issue as we evaluated whether (the shuttle) could go to the Hubble," he said.

Instead, these and other NASA officials claimed the decision to cancel the last shuttle servicing mission to Hubble was made after careful analysis of the risks involved.

As Gregory told Congress, "Administrator O'Keefe made a very conscious, deliberate and well-informed decision that the shuttle would not service the Hubble."

When asked by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the science committee, and Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., for a copy of that risk analysis report, Gregory agreed to provide it.

Yet, one day later, NASA historian Steve n Dick gave a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, in which he described the process by which that decision was made and revealed that, in fact, no formal risk analysis had been completed.
According to Dick's interviews, risk was the major factor in the discussion, but the officials decided a formal risk analysis was unnecessary. Instead, Dick noted, "The decision was made (by O'Keefe) based on what he perceived was the risk."

In other words, O'Keefe canceled the Hubble mission solely on his gut feeling of the situation. So, the only way NASA can provide the House Science Committee's requested copy of that risk analysis from December 2003 is to recreate it after the fact.

As of Thursday there was no word on whether NASA submitted the requested document.
Now it could be that even a preliminary, informal risk analysis showed that the risk was too high by orders of magnitude, so a full-blown formal analysis was not needed for technical reasons. Frankly, I doubt this is the case, but let's give NASA management the benefit of the doubt. But assuming it is the case, then a quick, 2-day study would reveal this, and would provide the necessary political cover with almost no expenditure. "Gut Feeling" or Intuition is a useful and often valuable tool for analysis, but it should always be checked by logic and numbers wherever possible. Even a small, semi-formal check. Always.

Instead, this looks like arrogance and managerial incompetence of the highest (or rather, lowest) level. It makes O'Keefe look like an arrogant fool - and in this case, appearances aren't completely deceptive.

I wouldn't have made a "gut feeling" decision like this in such a high-handed manner on a project whose cost would exceed $1,000, let alone $1,000,000,000. No competent engineer would have. No competent manager would have.

I still think that the decision is correct, of course, and am fairly confident that the numbers will provide the proof. But I have no delusions of Godhead or Infallibility, and believe that neither NASA Administrators nor Supreme Pontiffs speaking "ex Cathedra" are Infallible either.

What's worrying is that no-one at NASA blew the whistle on this one - if their corporate culture is such that "Intuitive Decisions From On High" even if probably correct aren't always checked as a matter of course, then they're in a heap of trouble. Brown-nosing, and "Crossing Fingers and Hoping For The Best" is no way to run a Church Fete, let alone a Space Programme.

UPDATE : Cumudgeon's Corner and Transterrestrial Musings are all over this.

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