Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, June 01, 2006


The US Space Foundation has put out a press release crediting former NASA Admin Dan Goldin for the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers. While there is some truth to that conclusion, the essay is so riddled with errors that it damages the reputation of the US Space Foundation and makes the group look a like a group of Goldin's mindless cheerleaders.

It is widely known that Dan Goldin took the reins at NASA in 1992, as Mars Observer was steaming towards a September launch. Less than a year later, the large and expensive Mars probe was lost during orbit insertion. Dan Goldin directed NASA's future Mars efforts along his familiar mantra of "Faster, Cheaper, Better."

In the world of program management, there are three baselines: schedule, cost and performance. It is generally accepted that two of these baselines can be enhanced, but only at the expense of the third. If your project has a faster schedule and cheaper cost, the performance is bound to get worse, not better. Of these three baselines, I tend to feel that performance is the most important. After all, if your satellite becomes a non-functioning brick, nobody is going to care how quickly it was built or how cheap it was. Asking somebody to do a project "Faster, Cheaper, Better" is asking the impossible.

Six Mars missions were planned under the "Faster, Cheaper, Better" philosophy: Global Surveyor & Pathfinder in 1996-7, Climate Orbiter & Polar Lander in 1998-9, and Odyssey & Lander in 2001. The first two missions were smashing successes and seemed to indicate that "Faster, Cheaper, Better" was working. The 1998-9 missions, however, became embarassing failures that forced NASA to scale back ambitious plans for exploring Mars. While Odyssey forged ahead, the lander was delayed indefinitely (it will now fly in 2007 as Phoenix.)

The 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers were in development when NASA was hit by the twin failures. The rovers were at an early enough stage in development that the lessons of the failed probes could be incorporated. Among the changes included bigger budgets and more extensive testing. Although these reforms were initiated during the twilight of "The Goldin Era," Dan Goldin's successors also deserve credit for sustaining their commitment to realistic budgets, schedules, and testing.

The lesson of this case study is that Dan Goldin didn't inherit all of NASA's Mars failures. The failures of 1998-9 can be directly linked to his absurd "Faster, Cheaper, Better" philosophy. The credit for the successes of the 2003 Rovers should be shared between Dan Goldin, his successor Sean O'Keefe, and all of the people who worked on that project to make it the success it is today.