NASA’s Black Hole Budgets

A cancer is overtaking our space agency: the routine acquiescence to immense cost increases in projects. Unmistakable new indications of this illness surfaced last month with NASA’s decision to spend at least $100 million more on its poorly-managed, now-over-$2 billion Mars Science Laboratory. This decision to go forward with the project, a robotic rover, was made even though it has tripled in cost since its inception, it is behind schedule, there is no firm estimate of the final cost, and NASA hasn’t disclosed the collateral damage inflicted on other programs and activities that depend on NASA’s limited science budget.

The decision to pour more money into the Mars Science Laboratory, which is scheduled for launching next year, may have been like many I witnessed as NASA’s associate administrator for science. If so, then NASA’s accomplished administrator, Mike Griffin, may have calculated that any move to cancel the Mars mission would be rebuffed by members of Congress protecting local jobs.

And the Mars Science Laboratory is only the latest symptom of a NASA culture that has lost control of spending. The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the storied Hubble, has increased from initial estimates near $1 billion to almost $5 billion. NASA’s next two weather satellites, built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have now inflated to over $3.5 billion each! The list goes on: N.P.P., S.D.O., LISA Pathfinder, Constellation and more. You don’t have to know what the abbreviations and acronyms mean to get it: Our space program is running inefficiently, and without sufficient regard to cost performance. In NASA’s science directorate alone, an internal accounting in 2007 found over $5 billion in increases since 2003.

As a scientist in charge of space sensors and entire space missions before I was at NASA, I myself was involved in projects that overran. But that’s no excuse for remaining silent about this growing problem, or failing to champion reform. And when I articulated this problem as the NASA executive in charge of its science program and consistently curtailed cost increases, I found myself eventually admonished and then neutered by still higher ups, precipitating my resignation earlier this year.

Endemic project cost increases at NASA begin when scientists and engineers (and sometimes Congress) burden missions with features beyond what is affordable in the stated budget. The problem continues with managers and contractors who accept or encourage such assignments, expecting to eventually be bailed out. It is worsened by managers who disguise the size of cost increases that missions incur. Finally, it culminates with scientists who won’t cut their costs and members of Congress who accept steep increases to protect local jobs.

The result? The costs of badly run NASA projects are paid for with cutbacks or delays in NASA projects that didn’t go over budget. Hence the guilty are rewarded and the innocent are punished.

Consider these examples: In NASA’s astronomy program, the James Webb Space Telescope’s $4 billion in cost increases have prevented the development of other important astronomy missions. In NASA’s Earth science program, the ballooning price tags of missions already being built have severely delayed proposed missions to study global climate change and to pioneer early-warning systems for earthquakes, among others. In NASA’s human exploration program, cost increases have slowed the development of a shuttle replacement, extending the looming multiyear gap in America’s ability to launch human spaceflight missions. This is not to the benefit of science, or space exploration, or the nation.

And this is not the only damage being done. Our once-broad planetary program that has launched missions to the Moon, comets, asteroids and five planets since the mid-1990s has been so reduced — largely by years of Mars overrun — that all that remains in hardware development are just one lunar and one outer-planet mission. Even those two missions are endangered now by the Mars Science Laboratory’s spiraling cost.

NASA’s main defense for paying still more for this new Mars rover: the $1.8 billion or more in already sunk cost. But good executive managers know that sunk costs are already spent — more important is the collateral damage done to NASA’s future portfolio, and how the coddling of errant projects encourages soaring costs, rather than cost control.

This cancer is bad, but it is curable. The new presidential administration could begin by accounting for cost increases more honestly, using the initial basis on which missions are started, rather than today’s practice of neglecting certain kinds of cost escalation. Further, scientists and engineers should be required, when formulating missions, to ensure their scope matches their budget. And NASA should be charged to reduce or cancel development projects that are not performing to cost. Of equal importance, Congress should turn from the self-serving protection of local NASA jobs to an ethic of responsible government that delivers results.

Yes, controlling the costs of space missions, while ensuring their success and safety, will be a steep challenge for NASA, but NASA’s workforce, from technicians to top executives, is among the government’s most dedicated and capable. This is a challenge that can be met with appropriate leadership.

America’s space program has been the envy and inspiration of the world. It has made landmark scientific discoveries that are a lasting legacy of this nation’s greatness. It has studied Earth in ways no other nation can match. And it is leading the world to develop the first outpost on the Moon and the first historic human expeditions to the planets.

S. Alan Stern, an astrophysicist and planetary scientist. He was an associate administrator in charge of the NASA Science Mission Directorate from 2007 to 2008.