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Stern Measures Keep NASA's Kepler Mission on Track

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the playing-hardball-in-spaaaace dept.

NASA 73

Hugh Pickens writes "NASA's new Space Science Division Director, Dr. S. Alan Stern, appears to be making headway in keeping in space projects like the Kepler Mission at their original budgeted costs. The New York Times reports that Stern's plan is to hold projects responsible for overruns, forcing mission leaders to trim parts of their projects, streamline procedures or find other sources of financing. 'The mission that makes the mess is responsible for cleaning it up,' Stern says. Because of management problems, technical issues and other difficulties on the Kepler Mission, the price tag for Kepler went up 20% to $550 million and the launch slipped from the original 2006 target date to 2008. When the Kepler team asked for another $42 million, Stern's team threatened to open the project to new bids so other researchers could take it over using the equipment that had already been built."

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73 comments

Staying within budget? (0, Redundant)

RealGrouchy (943109) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902174)

If only they'd do the same thing for their military programs.

(Canada's military programs are constantly overbudget; I can only assume the US suffers from the same problem)

- RG>

Re:Staying within budget? (2, Informative)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902522)

I can only assume the US suffers from the same problem

You have no idea. The military-industrial complex in the United States is second to none it its unrivaled ability to generate cost overruns and squander funds. Really, there's nothing like it anywhere on the planet.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

tc1415 (1098727) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902688)

Didn't they spend some ridiculous sum (> $100) on a nut and bolt once?

Re:Staying within budget? (4, Interesting)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902804)

Well, keep in mind that a there is a difference between a commercial part and a part certified to mil spec, and military grade parts often cost a lot more. But yeah, there's a lot of profiteering going on amongst military suppliers, has been for decades. There are various C.O.T.S. (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) programs in our militaries. Their purpose is to seek out non-mil-spec commercially available hardware that can either be used in a military application as-is, or can be brought up to spec relatively cheaply.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

earlymon (1116185) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903820)

Bonus! Thanks, dooood!

All Americans suck because they all associate with non-Slashdotters.

(instant karma's gonna get me, da da da da, de do, da da!)

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

The Dobber (576407) | more than 6 years ago | (#21904140)

The bolt is the same regardless of whether it's used in a Chevy Aveo or an Abrams Battle Tank. The cost comes for the 30 lbs of paperwork that needs to accompany said bolt stating the it does indeed meet the advertised specifications, the traceability of the part and the documentation of the manufacturing procedures.

Throw in the additional workforce requirements, stir with a couple of meetings between parties and flavor with outlandish shipping requirements.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#21904250)

The bolts aren't necessarily the same. Some military programs have unusual requirements or require different materials, and may have different design requirements. But yeah, the paperwork is a bitch.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

cnettel (836611) | more than 6 years ago | (#21905146)

Measuring precision is superior to original manufacture precision. Getting a part that's been verified and validated to be close to spec is a different thing than just being lucky. Whether that precision and lack of imperfections really contribute to the total reliability in a significant way is another issue, but even when parts come off the same factory line, the difference between them can be quite real.

Re:Staying within budget? (3, Interesting)

Carnildo (712617) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902936)

Didn't they spend some ridiculous sum (> $100) on a nut and bolt once?


For most applications, parts can be qualified for use in batches: take a few parts from the batch, test them to destruction, and if they meet spec, the whole batch is qualified. When I worked in a mechanical testing lab, strength-testing a bolt to destruction would cost (equipment + labor + overhead) $1.50. At the typical ratio of one part tested out of every ten thousand, that's a tiny fraction of a penny per bolt.

Military hardware requirements generally state that each individual part meet spec. This requires non-destructive testing. The company I worked for never did non-destructive testing, but the one time we were asked for a quote, it was $30 per part. If that's typical for the industry, it's obvious why the military was spending $100 per bolt.

Re:Staying within budget? (3, Interesting)

ScrewMaster (602015) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903530)

For most applications, parts can be qualified for use in batches

Statistical Process Control, yes. You'll still do both destructive and non-destructive testing especially for a military application, but yeah, hundred percent testing is expensive as hell. I did a number of SPC data acquisition systems for fastener manufacturers (self-tapping screws, mostly) and they would typically test 20 parts from a barrel of screws. That was sufficient for commercial use but would hardly be acceptable in a military program. And load-testing a bolt? There you'll have to use a high-powered tension machine (Tinius-Olsen or something on that order, if it's a large part) and those things aren't exactly fast.

There are many other failure modes that a threaded fastener can suffer as well, and depending upon the specifics you might have to test for those as well. That's not including performance testing and design verification either.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

ChronosWS (706209) | more than 6 years ago | (#21904538)

Not that I am advocating what I am about to hypothesize, but bear with me for a moment.

If we were to take your post and the previous one together and assume that the cost for testing a simple part (nut, bolt, screw) is now three orders of magnitide above the cost of the the part itself, then I wonder if mil-spec parts are really doing us any favors. Obviously people's lives are at stake in many of these cases, but when it isn't, I wonder if the overall cost of having to do it over due to part failure might be less than doing it "right" the first time. In which case we actually are not doing ourselves a favor by testing to completion.

Idle speculation on my part, since I don't know much about mechanical engineering, mechanical failure modes or the stresses on these machines, failure probabilities, etc.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

joshuac (53492) | more than 6 years ago | (#21904968)

Obviously people's lives are at stake in many of these cases, but when it isn't, I wonder if the overall cost of having to do it over due to part failure might be less than doing it "right" the first time. In which case we actually are not doing ourselves a favor by testing to completion.

The "when it isn't" part is already being practiced. Not every bolt the military purchased cost $100. The $100 bolts are being used (presumably) in the situations where failure has a high cost.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

ChronosWS (706209) | more than 6 years ago | (#21906648)

Is it? I wonder. How much does Hubble cost? Billions? Doesn't that seem excessive? I know it's a telescope, and it's in space, but c'mon. BILLIONS. I love Hubble and a lot of those pure science instruments, but I'd like to see the cost breakdowns frankly.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

joshuac (53492) | more than 6 years ago | (#21917860)

Bad comparison. Hubble (as the first big space-based optical telescope) was also a pretty _huge_ step in technology (and launch-wise, it's not exactly a micro-sat). Similarly, everything put into developing and launching the first communications satellite cost quite a bit more and did much less than the 100th. The Hubble telescope wasn't a commodity item, so it was economical to over engineer everything. Even the famously out of focus main mirror was amongst one of the smoothest ever made.

If every bolt cost the military $100, the military budget would quickly outstrip the U.S. GDP, dwarfing the already large military budget, so obviously this isn't happening.

Depending on their function, some bolts cost $100, some cost $10, and some cost $0.01. Even outside the military.

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

ChronosWS (706209) | more than 6 years ago | (#21918564)

Billions huge? I'm not suggesting it wasn't a new application to existing ideas. But a billion is a lot of dollars, a multiple billions, well, that's a lot more dollars :)

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

joshuac (53492) | more than 6 years ago | (#21926434)

Billions are definitely big numbers, but space is definitely expensive. Even the basics cost a lot to do in space, and when you do something extra special, it gets extra 'spensive :)

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

ChronosWS (706209) | more than 6 years ago | (#21929588)

I read Zubrin's book about how to get to Mars, and as I recall, billions were not required (it was on the order of 10s or millions to low hundreds.) Perhaps I am comparing apples to oranges, but I am pretty sure two to three orders of magnitude spread lets apples and oranges be compared in this case :)

Re:Staying within budget? (1)

MetalPhalanx (1044938) | more than 6 years ago | (#21905224)

I remember hearing about a scam that two ladies ran that allowed them to fleece millions of dollars from the military due to a method in which something was shipped priority to the military. They would charge ridiculous sums (sometimes > $10000) to ship small things, and in one case it was some nuts and bolts as well. Maybe related? I don't see how even rigorously tested nuts and bolts could be $100 each.

U.S. Military in comparison to what? (1)

Cassini2 (956052) | more than 6 years ago | (#21905572)

The U.S. military actually manages its budgets fairly well, in comparison to others. The Soviet's essentially bankrupted their entire economy trying to maintain a military that ultimately it could not afford. The screw-ups in the Soviet unions management ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union.

The private sector makes massive screw-ups too. Companies go broke all the time. They pay for their mistakes. All told, the desire for economic survival and profit ultimately makes the corporate sector more efficient.

The U.S. military may not be great for managing budgets, but for a bureaucratic organization, the American model isn't too bad. At least, not when compared to the competition.

OT but important: the nature of rape? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21902644)

This is completely OT, but I"m having an argument about the nature of rape. The other party are trying to convince me that it's about control, not sex.

I explained to them that men want sex. Men also want TVs. Some men, if they can't afford a TV or don't want to pay for it, will steal the TV. Similarly, some men, if they aren't offered sex by a lover, can't afford it, or don't want to pay for it, will rape.

The other party couldn't grasp this.

Taking the TV without the consent of the owner of the TV is not about wielding control over the owner, it's about getting a TV.

Having sex without the consent of the owner of the body is not about wielding control over the owner, it's about getting sex.

How simple is this? It's about an abhorrent means to an end.

It's completely ruining work into rape prevention that there's this feminist refusal to acknowledge that it's natural for men to have a strong drive for sex, and that some men do not apply that drive appropriately.

"I want sex."

"No, you want control."

All further counselling is based on convincing the man of something that's not remotely true. Placed in denial, the potential rapist who has gone to seek help is no less likely to rape, and the convicted rapist is never rehabilitated.

Need examples? Hell, only last week a drunk girlfriend at a party was nearly "taken advantage of". You think the man was doing it to control her, rather than to get his rocks off?

Re:OT but important: the nature of rape? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21903800)

So completely off-topic. So completely TRUE.

They need some corporate sponsorship (4, Interesting)

spun (1352) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902182)

Put some big old advertising on it, call it Verizon Awesome Space Planet Finder. Offer to let sponsoring corporations name the first earth-like planet found. You'd have funding coming out your black hole, I tell ya'.

Please, for the love of science, don't anyone take this seriously, m'kay?

Too late! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21902400)

The rebels on the planet GoldenPalace.Com are next-already building a time machine so they can assassinate you before you will-would have posted this!

I just hope I used the proper past-perfect/future-imperfect verb there. Forgot my handbook and I don't want the time traveling grammar Nazis to will-have come after me.

Re:They need some corporate sponsorship (1)

LordHuggington (1210226) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902500)

I hope that never happens. Corporate sponsorship has already ruined stadium names. However, if Planet Hollywood got to name a planet in exchange for some sponsorship dollars, that might be kinda funny. :p

Corporate Sponsorship rant (1)

OzPeter (195038) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902504)

I know that this is off topic but one thing that annoys me about living in the US is the principal that if there is an exposed surface that someone can see, then you have to sell it off to someone to use as a place for advertising.

Last time I flew I couldn't believe how far that this idea had gone. There were advertisements on the bottom of the plastic trays that you stack your belongings in when you slide them through the x-ray machines.

Who in their right mind though that this was a valuable place to sell space? Who were the idiots who bought it? At most you see the bottom of that tray for a second or two and I am sure as hell not thinking about buying things when I am in the x-ray machine line.

Does everything *Have* to *Have* advertising plastered on it? /rant

Re:Corporate Sponsorship rant (3, Insightful)

Toonol (1057698) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902532)

Well, it may have been idiots that bought the space, but whoever sold it is a genius...

No news here. (4, Insightful)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902192)

Nothing to see here, move along please...
 
Nobody should be surprised at this 'news', the unmanned/science side of NASA is just as bad at estimating costs and meeting schedules as the manned side. Every couple of years a new broom comes in and makes a big show of trying to change things... but things never really change.
 
Keep this in mind when they start whining about how the Shuttle is eating up all their budget.

Re:No news here. (3, Insightful)

Zadaz (950521) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902980)

To the contrary, they know exactly how to bid on a government contract: You bid low so you can get any funding at all. Then you keep your head down so no one will notice your cost overruns.

But I still feel that belt tightening is overdue at NASA. No way we're getting back to the moon, much less mars without more clever thinking applied to off-the-shelf components. The most successful of recent NASA projects have been the most thoughtful and focused, not the highest spenders.

Re:No news here. (3, Insightful)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903932)

When the components NASA needs are available off-the-shelf, that will be an excellent approach.

Re:No news here. (1)

TwP (149780) | more than 6 years ago | (#21910418)

> When the components NASA needs are available off-the-shelf, that will be an excellent approach. The actual spacecraft is about half the cost of any NASA program. The other half is all the test equipment, the prototype models, etc. Having worked on the Kepler program, I can assure you that there are many off the shelf components that can be used -- not necessarily on the spacecraft, but definitely in the test equipment area. Another effort that the contractors are scurrying to implement are reusable test components that can be carried over from program to program. The difficulty is that most NASA contracts state that all the equipment created over the course of the program belongs to NASA. Figuring out the legal bits of the contract to make equipment reuse more viable is another change that needs to happen at NASA/JPL, too. Blessings, TwP

Re:No news here. (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 6 years ago | (#21915652)

The DoD doesn't seem to have any problem supplying equipment it owns as GFE (Goverment Furnished Equipment) to contractors - heck, half the stuff that GE used to haul down to my submarine for testing and overhauls was GFE. I suspect the problems at NASA aren't just contractual but also (and largely) proceedural.
 
This is confirmed by anecdotal evidence from acquaintances who worked at Dryden and elsewhere - NASA tends to operate 'open loop'. When an office/program is established, it gets what amounts to an empty room - everything they need from office furniture to flight hardware has to be bought/built/scrounged. When a program shuts down, everything left over is either sold, donated to museums, scrapped, or carefully stored away and promptly forgotten about. Very little in the way of recycling or repurposing.

Re:No news here. (1)

iamlucky13 (795185) | more than 6 years ago | (#21911848)

The most successful of recent NASA projects have been the most thoughtful and focused, not the highest spenders.

While I agree some strict budget control measures are long called for, I'm afraid the above quote isn't quite true. I'm having a lot of trouble thinking of missions that fit your description: successful, focused, not big spenders. Mars Pathfinder probably, although it wasn't necessarily a really focused mission. It was primarily a technology demonstrator. Stardust, Deep Impact, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Global Surveyor all get nods. But on the other hand:

  • The Mars Exploration Rovers were about 30% over budget and Opportunity nearly got cut from the manifest several times. Their goals at time of launch were also somewhat ambiguous.
  • The Hubble was originally proposed as a $400 million dollar project. As of 1986, that had grown to $1.2 billion. By launch it had cost over $2.5 billion, not counting the servicing mission for the defective mirror. Total costs are around $5 billion now.
  • Cassini was roughly on budget and so far has been quite successful, but it was a huge spender. That single mission cost $3.2 billion.
  • Galileo was likewise successful at Jupiter, was not without problems and experienced growth from $270 million to $1.4 billion.
  • The Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander were both very well focused missions developed from the "better, faster, cheaper" mantra. Both were spectacular failures.

The issue here is that NASA comes up with some really nifty missions, but underestimates the cost and sometimes mis-manages programs, as you've described. However, some of the missions are just too good to let go of, so they continuously eat the cost overruns and delays because they really want the science a particular mission is going to allow. Other times they've invested so much in a mission they don't want to throw all the investment out, and they pay the extra just to make sure they get something out of it. I may have said the MER's didn't have real clear objectives, but NASA knew they had versatile machines and dug up the extra money because they knew they could work with whatever they found on the surface.

The James Webb Space Telescope is an even better, and more current example. It's had features removed or downsized several times, but has still suffered explosive cost growth and delays. However, every time it gets reviewed, the science guys say they absolutely must have this mission and other things get cut to pay for it.

Re:No news here. (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21903540)

I wonder how many BLACKS are working for NASA now?
Can you seriously imagine if NASA were all BLACK, that they could put a man on the moon? Or even launch a satellite?

But remember, "We're all the same", right?

At least, that's what our Jewish masters keep telling us...

Preflight testing was scaled back (3, Insightful)

The Media Mechanic (1084283) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902246)

"Among other measures, the duration of the four-year mission was cut by six months and preflight testing was scaled back."
Way to go guys ! You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests! Good choice there ! Nice one !

Re:Preflight testing was scaled back (2, Insightful)

kbob88 (951258) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903360)

You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests!

This is not about saving money on that one project. It's about changing attitudes and processes over the long-term -- towards accountability in estimation, planning, and execution. If a $500mm project has to fail because they couldn't plan and implement, that's not good for science in that area in the short-term. But it sends a message to all other (future) projects: NASA is getting serious about money, so manage yourselves appropriately. And over the long-term, science in general wins, because more projects succeed, and money doesn't get reallocated from other projects to save the over-budget ones.

Because if they don't do this, eventually Congress will shut down (or radically reduce) the funding. And then they're all screwed, including the well-managed projects.

Re:Preflight testing was scaled back (1)

gstoddart (321705) | more than 6 years ago | (#21910484)

If a $500mm project has to fail because they couldn't plan and implement, that's not good for science in that area in the short-term. But it sends a message to all other (future) projects: NASA is getting serious about money, so manage yourselves appropriately. And over the long-term, science in general wins, because more projects succeed, and money doesn't get reallocated from other projects to save the over-budget ones.

So, if I replaced "project" with "war", "NASA" with "Pentagon", and "science" with "national security" would the same apply? Would we just reallocate the money to a more cost effective war and pull the budget?

Sometimes, doing something fantastically difficult and which hasn't been done before costs more money than you thought. Sure, in an ideal world NASA could accurately predict how much it will cost to do something completely new. The reality is, they can't always.

I'd rather have our science go over budget than some of the waste that happens in the other parts of government and the military. I bet if you look at the budgets of of FEMA or DHS, you might find one or two things which have gone over budget. The difference being, people think it's worth ramming through an emergency spending bill (with riders for someone's pet project as well on it) for those, but not for NASA.

I'm not saying NASA should be given a blank cheque, but I am saying if you want to look for lack of accountability and cost over-runs, NASA is hardly unique. In fact, NASA probably has a better reason for doing it.

Cheers

Re:Preflight testing was scaled back (1)

CopaceticOpus (965603) | more than 6 years ago | (#21913774)

The answer is to hold the project managers and cost estimators personally responsible. If they can't deliver on their promises, they should know that their jobs may be in jeopardy. Likewise, those who can manage a budget well should be promoted. In this way, you can have accountability without dooming a $550m project to failure just to prove an expensive point.

At the same time, a careful analysis needs to be made of just how and why a project gets to be over budget. Was it poor planning, poor management, or was it simply an unforeseeable expense? There has to be some room for the budget to grow when you're doing theoretical, cutting edge science. Not everything can be predicted.

Re:Preflight testing was scaled back (2, Interesting)

earlymon (1116185) | more than 6 years ago | (#21904226)

Way to go guys ! You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests! Good choice there ! Nice one !
Give that man a cigar! Here's a money quote from one of the first sites I'd googled for the initial Hubble failure:

The initial failure of the Hubble Space Telescope is an example of problems caused by relying on computer simulations. In 1990, when the orbiting telescope sent its first photographs back to Earth, the images were unexpectedly fuzzy and out of focus. NASA determined that the problem was the result of a human error made years before the launch: the telescope's mirror had been ground into the wrong shape. The mirror, tested prior to launch like the telescope's other separate components, functioned properly on its own. However, the manufacturers did not actually test the mirror in conjunction with the other components. The manufacturers relied on computer simulations to determine that the separate components would work together. The simulation didn't take into account the possibility of a misshapen mirror.

Because of the Hubble problems, NASA learned "a great lesson" about "the merits of actually testing a system rather than depending upon theory and simulation," explains Doran Baker, founder and vice-president of Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory.
From - http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3797/is_199810/ai_n8814801 [findarticles.com]

That's just one slice, but not at all the whole story. I get too pissed off even thinking of the early Hubble days to grope further to substantiate, but NASA blew it on many, many levels of saving a buck and avoiding common-sense operational tests - and I say this as an ex-advisor for the Army and Air Force operational test communiities.

NASA learned their lesson, indeed! They say to never credit to conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence - but the NASA corrolary to that is to never underestimate that a great crowd of incompetents can indeed conspire to hide their incompetency to the point of fostering even more of it.

And I've worked on joint Air Force / NASA projects, so no lectures please about how little I know or that I'm flamebaiting - I'm qualified to speak.

I'm always loyal enough to praise NASA after they get something right - but most of the time, I'm happy to grouse in the hopes of educating voting taxpayers. Today, people still don't essentially get that the shuttle was sold to Nixon by the NASA second-stringers - an outgroup - and he bought it because he was being looked down upon by the Kennedy-Johnson NASA crowd. Sorry - this stuff really chaffs my ass.

Re:Preflight testing was scaled back (1)

Idarubicin (579475) | more than 6 years ago | (#21914278)

Way to go guys ! You saved $42 million but increased the chance of the entire $500 million project failing due to not enough preflight tests! Good choice there ! Nice one !

Leaving aside the serious issue of reduced preflight testing (*cough* Hubble *cough*), we're still paying $550 million (the 2006 budgeted amount) instead of $592 million (the requested total amount), a reduction of 7.1%. In exchange for those savings, we're getting 3.5 years of science instead of 4.0--a reduction of 12.5%. Way to go, guys.

So, the mission is launched in 2008, and 3.5 years after that they come hat in hand back to NASA and Congress, and ask for an extra $50 million to 'extend' the mission. The hardware's already up there, they just want to fund the monitoring and analysis. Why throw away a perfectly good satellite while it can still do science? (Note repeated extension of funding for other projects beyond their expected lifetimes when they continued to generate results; the recent Mars rovers are perhaps the most dramatic recent examples.)

The result? Stern gets to look good now for cracking down on 'waste'. The scientists get to look good for being 'team players' and working with management. Four years from now, NASA gets to look good for having an ongoing successful mission that was 'on budget'. Congress gets to look good for opening its wallet to science to 'save' an already-successful project from the dustbin. (Depending on when the probe actually gets launched, there will be at least two and possibly three Congressional elections between now and when the project runs out of money.) The same money ultimately gets spent.

lowest bidder mentality (3, Insightful)

timmarhy (659436) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902254)

This is what happens when you try use the lowest bidder method of picking contractors.

They are forced to bid low and over charge later, if they don't some other company will do it and they will lose out.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21902486)

Maybe I'm slow, but why not just make the contractors eat any overruns that occur? That way, the risk of overruns will be forced into their initial bid.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (4, Interesting)

evanbd (210358) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902558)

Historically, some of the stuff NASA was trying to get bids on was so far outside the realm of expertise of any possible bidder that no one would have been willing to just eat the cost overruns. So cost-plus contracts were awarded. It's become ingrained, and contractors have realized that they can simply threaten to not deliver if cost overruns won't be payed for.

There are some small aerospace companies that place fixed-price bids on NASA contracts, but none of the major ones do. Many of these companies are of the opinion that taking cost-plus work is severely damaging to the company mindset and correspondingly to its ability to function.

In general, I think fixed-price contracts would be a good idea. If you're worried about paying for a large project along the way, write the contract with intermediate deliverables, like test results from subsystems or prototype versions.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21902860)

Does it truly work to threaten non-delivery -- could NASA not just sue to recoup all development costs for breach of contract? I agree that if there truly is no historical data to estimate costs for a project that cost+ contracts seem reasonable, but I'd imagine that would be the minority of contracts at this point. Aren't NASA's requests still large enough to entice bidders on a fixed-cost contract?

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1)

evanbd (210358) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903624)

The issue comes when a contractor has met some deliverables, and then decides that the later ones will be more expensive than they originally bid. NASA would have the clout to get fixed-price bids if they had the willpower and desire to require them; make no mistake, the problem exists on both sides.

Another driver for fixed-price contracts in all government areas is profit margins. If a company places the lowest bid, and then produces a good product while making a 50% profit margin (because they found a better way to do it than their competitors), then the bureaucrat who allowed the company to make that high a profit gets accused of allowing the company to take advantage of taxpayer dollars. The result is that bureaucrats like cost-plus contracts, since the profits are set in advance at levels that no one much objects to. This holds even if the 50% profit margin contract costs more in total than the 8% cost-plus contract. It is, in many ways, an example of the principal-agent problem [wikipedia.org] .

Re:lowest bidder mentality (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21903618)

As a veteran of several fixed price IT contracts with NASA, my experience has been that fixed price contracts solve nothing and create a whole new set of problems. Imagine this scenario: deadlines and feature sets are written by civil servants who know nothing about managing software projects and have essentially zero understanding of the technologies invovled. Contractors accept the terms anyway (becuase the contractor's suits don't want to "leave money on the table"). The contractor management then leads its (salaried) staff on a death march which inevitably produces a buggy, poorly-tested product (after losing many talented technicians to burn out) that the government ends up paying for anyway because the customer doesn't know the difference (see the part about failing to write decent requirements to begin with). When they finally DO notice the product's deficiencies, they award another contract (usually to the same cast of characters) to fix them. Wash, rinse, repeat... There are other nasty side effects of fixed pricing such as the staffing vs. hardware tradeoffs that occasionally turn projects into Catch-22s or the internecine warfare that frequently pervades relationships between civil servants, contractors and subcontractors, all stabbing each other in the back (and undermining the product) for a percentage of an award fee.

Sure, greedy contractors abuse cost-plus contracts. They also abuse fixed-price contracts (by delivering just enough to get paid while essentially forcing the government to buy the next version of a substandard product in hopes of getting something that works better). The fundamental problem has more to do with an agency whose civil service management corps has become infested with wanna-be "executives" who are given authority over projects that they are grossly unqualified to lead. NASA needs to re-learn how to attract and retain people who are actually experts in their fields (that does NOT mean "hire business-school grads to throw money at contractors who claim to know what they're doing"), and it needs to figure out how to let them do their jobs with a minimum of political and bureaucratic manipulation.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (2, Insightful)

syousef (465911) | more than 6 years ago | (#21904622)

In general, I think fixed-price contracts would be a good idea. If you're worried about paying for a large project along the way, write the contract with intermediate deliverables, like test results from subsystems or prototype versions.

Oh yeah that would be much better. Let's see how it would work. Company A bids on the manufacture of lets say a new space vehicle. Lets use as examples 3 components - say: Engines, frame, and navigation system. Company X bids and wins design of the space vehicle, fixed cost. The contract is in parts - part 1 is the engine. They are able to do this without large cost overruns. So they bid on the frame, and costs blow out big time. Now company X does not want to bid on the navigation system. It turns out that all other bids are much higher than the orginal cost. So what does NASA do? Ditch the project? Wear the overrun? How is this better? What if NO ONE wants to bid? A single contract would mean at least one company was obligated to provide the product.

Note also that with the above there's higher overall uncertainty about who's going to eventually build what. Integration costs would skyrocket. The overall future of the project would continually be uncertain. Whereas up front contracts mean people can start talking and planning earlier on. When you're talking about a project that already may take a decade to design and build, that's the difference between success and failure.

I know that in practice different companies make different parts of a vehicle, but the idea of breaking a product up into smaller chunks and letting companies bid or not on stages to manage their risk is stupid, whereas splitting the work based on a company's expertise may have merit (though you do wear integration costs).

Space exploration isn't cheap. Doing new things means there are cost overrun risks. The question is whether it's worthwhile. I believe it is.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (2, Insightful)

evanbd (210358) | more than 6 years ago | (#21904798)

Your argument sounds nice, but is equally applicable to any large engineering project, which are regularly done on fixed-price contracts. As such, there's something wrong with it. I'll leave it up to you to figure out what, exactly.

I've worked on a NASA contract doing rocket engine development as a sub-contractor. Our bid for the subcontract was fixed-price. Even that level of experience was enough to convince me that cost-plus contracts are a bad idea.

Most of what NASA does, while hardly trivial, is reasonably well understood. Yes, there is plenty of R&D to do, but there aren't any Apollo or Atlas-type leaps into the great unknown being taken. Even when it comes to design of significant rocket engines, satellite systems, and other space hardware, there are enough people that understand it well that NASA could get fixed-price bids if they really wanted them. These things don't need to be as outrageously expensive as they are, and cost-plus contracts are one (of many, many) reasons that they are.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1)

syousef (465911) | more than 6 years ago | (#21905358)

That's nice for a rocket engine - one piece of the puzzle that is very well solved. Perhaps for well solved pieces of the puzzle fixed price contracts will work well. (By the way I envy you for getting such work).

  Now if you're doing something new, like say:

- Plunging into the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn with a probe
- Calculating the alignment of planets
- Putting a man on the moon for the first time ...well then it's a different story.

NASA does a lot more with new technology and non-routine engineering. That is high risk. Fixed price contracts on high risk things tend to be between double and an order of magnitude the projected cost (depending on competition) in case of budget blowout. Otherwise the bidder goes broke rather quickly if their consistent strategy.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1)

evilviper (135110) | more than 6 years ago | (#21918836)

In general, I think fixed-price contracts would be a good idea.

Fixed-price contracts work for large companies, selling inexpensive products.

Smaller companies can't just eat the cost and recoup it in profts elsewhere. Large companies might not be able to either, with multi-million dollar contracts.

As such, you're guaranteeing that companies will never be willing to bid on a difficult or unique project, because they'd have to massively over-charge just to cover the risks.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1)

evanbd (210358) | more than 6 years ago | (#21919432)

That's a very interesting thing to say, given that the companies doing fixed-priced aerospace work are the small ones, and the companies placing cost-plus bids are the large ones.

Project management and cost estimation are problems that can be understood and solved, even when R&D is involved. There's no magic involved. Well-managed companies can estimate costs even for work they haven't done before, take a fixed-price contract, and turn a profit.

If you want to get really cynical about it, you could say that the reason for cost overruns on cost-plus contracts isn't that there are major unforseen problems, or that they're incompetently managed, but that cost overruns are simply the most profitable way to operate. But that's an entirely different discussion.

My basic point is simple: I've worked on a fixed-price NASA (sub-) contract. For the majority of the work NASA needs done, it is a far superior model. The majority of NASA contracts are for things that, while new, are problems that the industry knows how to solve. They aren't leaps into a great unknown. This is true even for many things like interplanetary probes and new rocket vehicles. For the remaining minority, I think the case is less obvious, but I still believe fixed price work is a better idea.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1)

evilviper (135110) | more than 6 years ago | (#21936648)

That's a very interesting thing to say, given that the companies doing fixed-priced aerospace work are the small ones, and the companies placing cost-plus bids are the large ones.

Either the small companies are doing inexpensive work, small enough that they can eat any potential losses, or their company is perhaps a legally-independent spin-off that is simply gambling bankruptcy on every job.

Project management and cost estimation are problems that can be understood and solved, even when R&D is involved.

That's very easy to say when you don't actually have to do it.

Please estimate the cost necessary to build a sustainable fusion power reactor, and get back to me.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1)

evanbd (210358) | more than 6 years ago | (#21937756)

I've worked at such a company, on such a project. The project was small by NASA standards (single-digit $M), but large relative to the company. They certainly weren't gambling bankruptcy in the sense that they didn't believe there was a real risk of it. There was certainly a plausible (though unlikely) risk of losing money, but that's quite different than bankruptcy. Certainly they didn't have exact knowledge of what the job would cost, but they knew well enough to be able to budget it and put in a fixed-price quote that wasn't risking the existence of the company.

You know full well that the fusion reactor is irrelevant to most NASA work. If you want a high-reliability oxygen/hydrocarbon rocket engine with competitive performance in the 1N-100kN thrust range, I know several small companies that would be happy to quote you a fixed price development contract; a few of them might well be willing to bid on much larger ones. If you want a comparable job in satellite design and development done, there are other companies that will do that. And before you say those sorts of jobs aren't interesting because they're well understood -- that's my entire point. Most of what NASA is doing is new development work on well understood problems. (That isn't to say it isn't interesting and good stuff; it is. It's just normally the results that are interesting, as opposed to the technology to get them.)

It's no different than estimating the cost to build an automobile engine from a clean sheet design; I don't know how to do it, but I know there are a good number of companies that would be happy to quote you a contract. I'm an engineer, not a business manager, so I won't claim to be able to make the estimates myself -- but I understand what the role of a good business leader is in such things, and I have some concept of what those skills do and don't imply the ability to do. Estimating project costs in the face of a moderate number of unknowns (ie R&D) is certainly one of the implied skills.

If you're doing any sort of engineering work, and the managerial team *doesn't* understand how to estimate a development budget for a completely new product, I recommed you look for a different job.

Lowest bidder mentality- NOT! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21903484)

"This is what happens when you try use the lowest bidder method of picking contractors."

Not really - scientific instruments aren't really chosen on that basis. Many of them involve new designs & concepts, so the costs are hard to pin down. At Southwest Research Institute, Stern's home institution, we had many missions go over budget for various reasons.

And the original proposals go through both scientific peer review and engineering design reviews, so the costs go through many approval stages before a single penny is spent.

I remember making a single public comment on one particular mission that resulted in a two million dollar re-design of the instrument's pointing system.

Re:lowest bidder mentality (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903988)

These aren't contractors doing the bidding - but teams of scientists, frequently in house.

In other news... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21902264)

bababooey bababooey bababooey!

Holy moly... (1, Funny)

creimer (824291) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902360)

If they keep whipping the eggheads into shape, there's going to be a lot of scrambled eggs. :P

What a suprise. (0, Flamebait)

moogied (1175879) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902386)

So essentially, these guys are now forced to increase overhead by working more, and using more and more exotic techniques to save cash.. essentially he is telling these guys "Look, I don't give a damn about the project, but by god if you got 1$ over budget I will kill you."

Bravo retard.

Actually... (0, Troll)

vajaradakini (1209944) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902530)

I think this is a pretty good idea. Given that the US government has decided that killing people in pointless, unjustified wars is more important than scientific development, this makes the best of a bad situation (i.e. a stagnant budget) and allows everyone who was promised money for a project to get that money without worrying that someone else will go over budget and the money will disappear.

Boom! Boom! (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21902646)

I see what they did there, the man's name is 'Stern' and the headline talks about 'Stern measures...' What a pun! The finest traditions of red-top journalism. I've not seen anything that funny since they started gassing each other in WW1.

why isn't anyone saying this? :) (2, Funny)

k-zed (92087) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902664)

for the love of god*: GIVE THEM MORE MONEY!

*: yes yes. irony.

Human Nature (1)

JustNiz (692889) | more than 6 years ago | (#21902672)

It seems to be human nature to want to try and quantify, classify and plan everything, however some things (like research) can't be effectively estimated beforehand because of the unknowns. Try explaining that to a project manager though.
Whilst I agree with trying to keep to a plan, by being so hardline this guy just sounds like yet another clueless project manager who think the people that actually do the work (engineers and scientists) are purposely trying to go over budget at any opportunity if it wasn't for him.

Stern (4, Insightful)

Shooter6947 (148693) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903018)

Alan Stern is the precise antithesis of a clueless project manager. He is, in fact, a planetary scientist who continues to actively contribute to the scientific community. He took this job because HIS mission to Pluto, New Horizons [jhuapl.edu] , on which he is the principal investigator, did end up on budget and on time, and he thinks that the total amount of science would be maximized if others did the same. He's right. On the astrophysics side there isn't money left for hardly any science at all these days, what with the Hubble-successor James Webb Space Telescope [wikipedia.org] hoovering up any dollar not glued down. What Alan Stern is doing makes sense from the standpoint of maximizing the science return from a fixed yearly budget.

Re:Stern (2, Insightful)

NatteringNabob (829042) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903652)

The problem is that his boss, the President of the United States, has decided that the vast bulk of NASA's money should be spent on a welfare program for giant aerospace companies (i.e. "the base"), not on science missions. If the 'man on mars' fantasy, the shuttle, and the to date absolutely useless ISS project were shut down, there would be plenty of money to do science under NASA's current budget. Which isn't to say that NASA management shouldn't be tight with each dollar. They should. However as long as NASA is primarily a vehicle for rewarding campaign contributors and companies in key congressional districts, they are never going to do much science. Sending people into space just isn't cost effective. If the Mars rovers haven't proven anything else, they have conclusively shown that robots can do space research far better than humans can, at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Re:Stern (1)

wierdling (609715) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903830)

The Mars rovers have not shown that they can do space research far better than humans. If we would have had a manned mission on Mars for the last 4 years, we would know much, much more than we do now.

The rovers have just shown that that robotic missions are cheaper.

Re:Human Nature (1)

omris (1211900) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903244)

for the most part, i would agree that many project managers do no understand the mutable nature of research. "if i KNEW what the data would show and how long it would take to get it, i would hardly need to DO the research." but then again, as someone who works with a project manager who feels that anything can be accomplished if you throw enough money at the problem and that budgets are not that important, it can be a real problem to operate as though money is no object. your average engineer wants to do their job and solve the problem tasked to them (and drink a lot of coffee), not price shop for the best value on sheets of aluminum. but you're less likely to go overbudget if SOMEONE does it. having someone at the helm who realizes that all financing is finite and works to accomplish the same goals using less resources is a blessing, make no mistake. he sounds like a good balance between the two. financial responsability without sacrificing the science; it can be done.

Re:Human Nature (2)

vajaradakini (1209944) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903292)

Well, when putting in a proposal for a NASA mission, you should generally have an idea of what components will be needed, how much the components will cost, how much time it should take to build this instrument et c. It's not like putting the instrument in space is the research aspect of the entire process, the research starts after launch and the experiments (or observing) commence.
Anyways, I don't know if you read the article, but Stern is a scientist, he's an astrophysicist. So he does (or at least should) have an idea of what research proposals should be like. It's not his fault if some people fail to take into account certain things when putting in their proposals and you can't just say to throw more money at groups who didn't ask for enough, what's to stop people from asking for much less money than they could possibly need in hopes of getting their foot in the door then asking for more?

Re:Human Nature (1)

Carnildo (712617) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903462)

It seems to be human nature to want to try and quantify, classify and plan everything, however some things (like research) can't be effectively estimated beforehand because of the unknowns.


Building a space probe and putting it into the correct place is engineering, not research. We've put enough of them in various places that by now, we should have a reasonable idea of how much various bits cost, and in such a case, trying to keep costs down is reasonable.

Once the probe reaches its target, that's when the research starts and the costs become less predictable.

Re:Human Nature (1)

cnettel (836611) | more than 6 years ago | (#21905212)

Yeah, but the problem is that it's an engineering project headed by scientists. They'll just take their funding and decide that they need some kind of hyperlinked document-management system, and develop a new protocol from scratch, simply because they actually believe that's the best way to do it...

Re:Human Nature (2)

Detritus (11846) | more than 6 years ago | (#21908470)

Building a new instrument package is often not "simple engineering", it's more like research and development that advances the state-of-the-art. When your doing something that nobody has ever done before, you often run into unforeseen problems. It isn't like building a common type of bridge for the 37th time.

NASA FTW (0, Offtopic)

ezwip (974076) | more than 6 years ago | (#21903642)

Now all we need is Dr. S. Alan Stern to run as VP with Dr. Ron Paul and we can clean this place up. :)

Bubba (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21909140)

Bubba Booey, Bubba Booey, Howard Stern, Howard Stern! Bubba Booey, Bubba Booey, Howard Stern, Howard Stern!
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