Train Wrecks In Space

Thoughts from Wayne Hale (who I hope I’ll see tomorrow in Las Cruces) on how to avoid them:

I have a cheap seat view of the Orion/SLS development. My basic observation: those efforts are drowning in ‘process’. The biggest threat to their success is not technical; it is schedule and cost. If the design and development processes drag the projects out too far, Congress or a new Administration will throw up their hands and call a halt to the whole thing. They did once before; my intuition is that they will again unless something significant happens.

The secret of a good program – as a very senior spacecraft designer once told me – is knowing how much is enough and then not doing anything more.

Right now, inside NASA, we have trained our workforce to do it perfectly. And perfection is very costly and takes a long time. Over in the Commercial Crew Program, the senior leadership is making some progress in toning down the drive for perfection. It is a slow effort and uphill at all times. Over in the Exploration systems area, it all seems to be going the other way. Whatever anybody calls necessary for safety or improvement – without evaluating the real cost or schedule or other impact – seems to be adopted.

So I am guardedly optimistic about the commercial teams actually succeeding in flying humans in space in the next couple of years.
Not so much optimism for the exploration systems, drowning in ‘process’.

The sooner it’s canceled, the better, but I’m sure we’ll waste more billions on it before it happens.

8 thoughts on “Train Wrecks In Space”

  1. Great post as usual by Wayne. I hope others read it all. I doubt enough people with influence will read it at NASA, but there is quite a bit there useful in any industry. This is perhaps the most key: “Pick a place. Make a design.“. I’m helping a project get started, and the first paragraph of the concept is “location” and then guidance on design constraints.

    1. Lot of latent wisdom and brave words in ex-NASA leaders these days. Lori Garver, Wayne Hale, Ed Lu.

      Can someone come up with some treatment to bring this out while they are still at their NASA jobs ?

      1. The treatment is rather simple. Fire them from time to time. Force them to go into other industries and learn. NASA has the same inbred problems as many other bureaucratic institutions.

    2. “This is perhaps the most key: “Pick a place. Make a design.“.”

      Can’t wait for Rand to be done with his project.

  2. Long ago, I heard that the ISO 9000 series was an EU plot to destroy American innovation by “paralysis by analysis” and, of course, well-documented processes.

    1. No. It started at Rolls Royce in WW2 when they were making bombs in their plants. It was necessary to ensure that they didn’t blow up their own bomb factories. After that RR started insisting that all their suppliers follow the process too, or they’d find other suppliers who would. It snowballed from there.

  3. Perfect’ should not even be in an engineers vocabulary. Within tolerance is all they can say. The perfect O-ring has never been made, etc.

    1. I made that argument at NASA, and the result was that I was asked to sit out of the final shuttle mission, so that a person that believed in perfection, and therefore never approved anything, could do my role. The word certified was confusing to this person and their leadership. They took it to mean guaranteed for all circumstances, rather than shown to function at a given specification. If these people had their way, the final shuttle missions would have been delayed to reanalyze certain hardware, and since funding was already cut; those missions either would not have flown or, in their view, Congress would fund their insanity.

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