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'Faster, cheaper, better'? Maybe not for NASA
Agency urged to focus on quality, not quickness

LOS ANGELES -- NASA's space exploration program is trying to do too much with too little money and not understanding the risks that could lead to embarrassments like last year's failed Mars missions, according to two panels of experts.

The reports released this week did not suggest the agency abandon its mantra of "faster, cheaper, better" missions but instead urged officials to focus less on quickness and cost and more on quality and reliability."The success of 'faster, better, cheaper' is tempered by the fact that some projects and programs have put too much emphasis on cost and schedule reduction," said one panel led by Arthur Stephenson, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

"We need to slow down some, not rush too quickly into important programs and projects, plan and implement them more carefully," said Tony Spear, who led the other review and is a former manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Last year was especially difficult for NASA: In addition to losing two Mars probes, space shuttle flights were delayed, the Hubble Space Telescope temporarily shut down and other missions either missed their targets or failed at launch.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin ordered reviews, including Spear's analysis of "faster, better, cheaper" and the report on NASA management by the Mars Climate Orbiter failure board, which Stephenson led. Last week, another panel made 81 recommendations on space shuttle management, safety and technical issues.

"We knew this change would not be easy," Goldin said. "We knew we would have problems."

JPL, which operated both the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter and $165 million Mars Polar Lander, said the failed missions serve as a wake-up call.

"The lessons learned, findings and recommendations seem to be on target, and we intend to take them seriously and do what we can to make the necessary improvements here at JPL," said Larry Dumas, the lab's deputy director.

A common theme runs through both reports: "Faster, better, cheaper" missions place too much emphasis on cost and schedule reduction and too little on management, oversight, leadership and evaluating risk.

The Climate Orbiter, for instance, was lost when a contractor failed to convert measurements into metric units.

That mistake itself was not as serious as the failure to catch it, the review board said.

"It's Management 101. They're basically saying there are four things you have to balance: cost, schedule, content and risk," said John Pike, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. "But they don't say very much about how to balance those."

The space agency will decide what specific actions to take by midsummer, said W. Brian Keegan, NASA's chief engineer.