Jon Goff has an instructive post on NASA’s supposed risk aversion, and points out that had they taken the same attitude half a century ago, Apollo would likely have failed (as Constellation seems likely to fail today, ironically, because it’s too much like Apollo, but without either the requirements or the management talent of that project).
But this opens up a much broader discussion of risk. There are multiple kinds of risk for a space project (and technology projects in general). There is technical risk — the risk that what you are trying to do may not be achievable within the schedule or budget because the technologies haven’t been sufficiently demonstrated and there are too many unknowns (both “known” and “unknown”). There is program risk — the risk that you may not manage the various aspects (including risk) of the project adequately, also resulting in cost increases and/or schedule slips (it is clear that this has happened to Constellation, as many have been pointing out for years). There is market risk — the risk that the thing that you’re building won’t actually satisfy the need. And for government programs, there is political risk — the risk that your project will lose political support prior to completion (actually sort of the government version of market risk, except that you’ll often find out that the market has disappeared prior to project completion, which is, I suppose, a feature rather than a bug).
A key element of being a successful project manager is managing and mitigating these risks. A lot of it happens at the very beginning of the project, when it’s a lot cheaper to do risk mitigation, and decisions taken have long-term consequences.
In that context. Mike Griffin failed the day that he selected the current architecture, because it had so much risk (of all varieties described above) cooked in right from the get go.
Not having access to the probabilistic risk analysis (PRA) that is a standard management tool for such decisions (I’m being generous in the assumption that one was actually performed, and the decision based on it) it appears to an outsider that no risk was considered other than purely technical. NASA (in defiance of one of the roles stated in its charter) chose the path that was deemed to have the best chance of success because it broke no new technological soil. In its own parlance, it chose to develop launch systems built from components of high TRLs (Technology Readiness Level). That is, they had been demonstrated operationally in the operational environment, in previous programs. Of course, because they didn’t really understand the operational environments (it’s a lot more than just flying through the atmosphere and going into space), it bit them on the ass, and took out a lot of meat (almost doubling the initial estimates of development cost, and slipping the schedule one year per year since it started). “Demonstrated in the environment” includes the environment of an integrated launch system. For instance, the fact that the SRBs only killed one Shuttle crew didn’t make them safe or, in isolation, “human rated.” And the fact that the vibration environment when they were structurally buffered from the crew system by a tank full of a million and a half pounds of propellant was minimally acceptable didn’t mean that it was a good idea to put a much smaller stage directly on top of them.
They probably considered program risk, but assumed that it was non-existent, because they were running the program, and who was better at managing programs than them? They apparently completely ignored political risk, or misassessed it. They seemed to think that the way to maintain program support was to completely ignore the recommendations of the Aldridge Commission — to make it affordable, sustainable, support commercial activities and national security — and instead to cater to the parochial demands of a few Senators on the Hill, particularly Senator Shelby. That one hasn’t bitten them on the ass yet, but it probably will when the Augustine recommendations come out in the fall, removing whatever glutiginous meat remained.
The tragic thing, as Jon points out, is that in avoiding the narrow technical risk of delivering, storing, manipulating propellants on orbit, something that is absolutely essential for future space exploration and space development (because they’ll never be able to come up with a launch system that can do a Mars mission in a single launch), and focusing all their efforts on a perceived “low-risk” but unnecessary new launch system, and in ignoring the systems necessary to get beyond LEO (as opposed to simply getting to orbit, which the private sector has had down for years) they have wiped out more billions in taxpayer dollars, and allowed the day that we would once again go beyond earth orbit, to recede far into the future.
At least, that is, if the lunar-bound vehicle has the word “NASA” on its side.
Fortunately, some of us, more attuned to the real risks, have other ideas.