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NSRC 2020

 
book cover
Augustine’s Laws may offer a guide for what the chairman of the new panle reviewing the future of NASA human spaceflight efforts has in mind.

NASA and the book of laws

The appointment of Norm Augustine to lead the President’s review of NASA’s human spaceflight program—specifically to recommend whether the agency should stick with the current Constellation architecture or try something else—gives us a great opportunity to take a fresh look at his 1983 classic Augustine’s Laws. The goal of the committee is “present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program.” Or, as he so appropriately put it in Law XXVIII, “It is better to be the reorganizer than the reorganizee.”

Law number XXIV would seem particularly relevant: “The only thing more costly that stretching the schedule of an established project is accelerating it, which is itself the most costly action known to man.”

One does have to wonder why he took the job in the first place since he wrote: “It has long been recognized that the formation of a committee is a powerful technique for avoiding responsibility, deferring difficult decisions, and averting blame while at the same time maintaining a semblance of action.” Maybe he feels that he has to try, once again, to do something about America’s disastrous lack of students working in the hard sciences, mathematics, and engineering. NASA is one of the few tools the government has to help inspire kids to get involved, and perhaps Augustine has some new ideas he can convince the space agency to accept.

His book was a remarkably insightful and hysterically funny look at the aerospace industry, the US government, and their ongoing confrontations with the laws of physics and human nature. As Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon series, put it “This is the only book that ever made me mutter ‘We’re all doomed,’ while laughing at the same time.” Except for the indisputable fact that our doom has been temporarily postponed, the predictions and principals in the original text have endured.

Law number XXIV would seem a particularly good one: “The only thing more costly that stretching the schedule of an established project is accelerating it, which is itself the most costly action known to man.” The urge of many politicians to spend more on NASA’s Constellation program so as to shrink the “Gap” is well known. The impact of such a decision on the rest of NASA, or on the future space exploration program, is obviously something that Mr. Augustine is going to have to look at very closely.

Another insight: “…we are attempting to develop major new systems with ten year technology, eight year programs, a five year plan, three year people, and one year dollars.” Constellation is trying to escape this dilemma by using existing technology: this may work, but it is dangerous since it assumes that the systems involved are already well understood, something that was so heavily critiqued in the 2003 Columbia Accident Investigation Board report.

The testing schedule for Constellation’s Ares 1 and Orion combination is, it seems, fairly relaxed in the near term but tightens up considerably later on. This fits nicely with the concept that money freed up by grounding the shuttle will flow generously to these projects. This was the logic on which the whole Vision for Space Exploration was based, but experience tells us that logic and the US Government have always made strange bedfellows.

The plan to test the Constellation hardware will surely be carefully scrutinized. No one has forgotten that the shuttle was declared operational after just four test flights. Yet comprehensive testing is time consuming, expensive, and sometimes controversial. Any change to the planned development test schedule is going to be hard for NASA and its contractors to accomplish. Again from the Book of Laws: “Thus one finds that the amount of testing needed actually decreases as an item becomes more complex, providing still another motivation for designers to avoid simplicity and at the same time reduce the likelihood of having the failings of their equipment exposed during the test program.”

The data, particularly the cost estimates, on which the Augustine Committee will make its judgment will be subject to the chairman’s well sharpened skepticism. After all, he questioned how when “the U.S. Census Bureau knows ‘In 1980 the U.S. labor force consisted of exactly 104,449,817 workers’ particularly when most employers don’t have any idea how many of their own employees are actually workers.” So when NASA’s contractors tell the committee that they will be able to produce a certain piece of hardware on such and such a date for such and such a price, they should expect their premises to be examined with a minimum of mercy.

If the current architecture is truly as bad as some claim, then he’ll no doubt recommend it be scrapped, but if it is a question of which approach is marginally better, then we may just get a restatement of the current plan.

So how is he going to deal with the committee’s mission? The problem may not reside in NASA’s organization charts or even in its regulations and procedures, imperfect though they are. Instead, what the committee may find is that there is a serious lack of experienced engineering talent inside the agency. This is the problem that the Defense Department is trying to remedy by recruiting 20,000 new civilian employees. Under current circumstances, can they find the right men and women and train them while keeping, more or less to the current program schedule?

Of course he will have to deal with the alternatives to Constellation. It will be interesting to see how he approaches everything from the COTS-D program to some of the other alternatives that have been proposed. The committee only has three months to work with, so there is obviously no time for any in-depth analysis of alternatives. If the current architecture is truly as bad as some claim, then he’ll no doubt recommend it be scrapped, but if it is a question of which approach is marginally better, then we may just get a restatement of the current plan.

Stepping back and looking at the way the space industry has performed over the past quarter century, what is amazing is not that Augustine’s Laws have lost none of their bite, but that the products actually function. For all the waste and the raw stupidity involved, the stuff still functions, most of the time. NASA has suffered two major disasters, but it has recovered and the work goes on. Perhaps the greatest lesson from the book is that human ingenuity can overcome even the worst that corporate and government bureaucracy can throw at it.


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