Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

NASA's core policy over last decade gets closer look

Posted: January 8, 2001

Artist's concept of what should have been: Mars Polar Lander near the Martian south pole. The craft was never heard from after entering the Martian atmosphere in December 1999. NASA believes a technical flaw caused it to crash. Photo: NASA
A team of NASA officials not long ago completed a thorough review of the space agency's "faster, better, cheaper" (FBC) policy. The 83-page report highlights recommendations for where these policies and programs should be headed and how to improve them enough to get them there.

The report was written by the NASA Integrated Action Team, or NIAT, with help from NASA Chief Engineer Brian Keegan. The NIAT team was led by Carolyn Griner, Deputy Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

The NIAT team encompassed four separate review boards that each critiqued a different part of the NIAT's charter, which is to define which recommendations from the four review boards had merit, then to change them into actions usable throughout NASA. Two of the boards reviewed the failed Mars missions of 1999, one recommended actions on FBC, and one assessed the Shuttle program.

In their assessment of NASA's FBC policy, the NIAT team was critical of FBC's implementation, with their report saying that "resources were highly constrained and guidance on the boundaries of innovation and risk taking was lacking, thereby engendering a variety of approaches to adapting to this new paradigm."

Later, the NIAT document pointed out that while the number of NASA programs was increasing in the 1990's, NASA's workforce was cut 24 percent, which caused "both a loss in corporate knowledge and a substantially increased workload on the remaining employees," the report said.

The paper then said that the technical complexity of the missions was increasing during this timeframe. "These changes in practice, skills, and knowledge of the workforce, coupled with the demand for innovation in aerospace science technology, particularly the revolution in information technologies, presented a tremendous challenge to NASA."

The NIAT team subsequently said that NASA's overall rate of success since FBC has been implemented remained "impressively high." The paper later said that "the success rate for missions clearly associated with exploring the boundaries stimulated by the FBC approach was approximately two out of three."

The report took another shot at FBC when it said, "FBC has promoted taking risk with insufficient guidance as to the boundaries. Resources have been highly constrained and the impact on resultant risk has not always been mitigated," the NIAT team's document stated.

To help clear up any misunderstanding on what "faster, better cheaper" actually means, the panel issued a definition of FBC.

Later, the team identified actions that NASA would need to take to meet the definition of FBC given. To meet the standard put in place in the definition, NASA:

1. "Emphasizes that safety of the public, its flight crews, its employees, and its critical assets are of paramount importance."

2. "Relies upon individual and organizational commitment to responsibility and accountability for doing it right the first time."

3. "Fosters efficiency in process, and the application of innovative methods and tools to greatly reduce product development cycle time and costs while ensuring that the risk is acceptable."

4. "Invests in an educated and empowered workforce to ensure the application of sound Project Management and Engineering practices."

5. "Invests in a sound technology program aimed at future needs, and encourages the infusion of those technologies."

6. "Recognizes that occasional mission failures will still occur."

In their conclusion of their evaluation of FBC, the NIAT team's report said, "The FBC principles are valid if properly applied."

"The NASA and Enterprise strategic plans project a vision full of multiple challenging missions and technology developments that to become a reality in the present environment need sound application of the 'faster, better, cheaper' philosophy and its principles," wrote the NIAT team, basically saying that NASA plans many difficult missions ahead, and if they are to be successful, they must have good support and proper utilization of the FBC policy.