Even though I left NASA officially in ’75 (I worked at JSC starting in ’63, thru the Gemini, Apollo, and into early Shuttle era), by ’80 I was re-engaged intimately as a consultant until the late 90’s, and I still remain in close contact with many of the NASA folks that I worked with (many of whom have now risen to higher positions in NASA). I (and they, I might add) have witnessed a steady decline in the organization, the “tips of the ice-berg” of which has been the obvious Challenger and Columbia disasters…..but much other lies below the surface of public cognizance.
What has happened is not the fault of NASA engineers and technicians, but rather a transformation of NASA by ever deeper penetration of political influence, and what I call the “cult of management”.
I saw the top spot at NASA be transformed from a technical-job (ie one being filled by highly qualified technical people of vision) into a “politically appointed puppet-position”; I have watched this political-stance of top management permeate ever lower….to the Center-directorships, then on down to the division chiefs, and even below.
The “Cult of Management” refers to a viewpoint by folks who fancy themselves as possessing (generic) “management skill” which can be applied to any “job of management” whatsoever. They would view this skill as complete, in and of itself, needing no any other subsidiary skills, such as antecedent specialized experience in the development of the product over which they presume to preside. For example, the filling of Apple’s top position once by the “Pepsi Cola president”, John Scully, is a case in point! I rest my case!
The cult of management tends to view with suspicion, all but the folks in accounting, whose “bottom line numbers” they view as the single valid metric of their performance; this type of thinking can lead to such things as the indiscriminate application of “out-sourcing” driven by immediate “bottom line” thinking. Furthermore, this lack of trust of technical people tends to make “cult managers” reject those who would bring bad technical news, regardless of the messenger’s competence. Of course this cost-only fixation can be disguised in tech-talk-garb such as NASA’s once motto “Cheaper, Better, Faster”, but we all know how that went!
I have seen out-sourcing (of just about everything NASA once used to do) progress to the point that in-house technical skills were allowed to erode, leaving few engineers competent to run the “NASA cash-registers” with real insight into whether NASA was being “taken to the cleaners or not” by the many new sub-contractors. In contrast to this, when I was responsible for writing the procurement specification for the real time OS for the computer complex to run the Shuttle mission simulators, the contract was awarded to UniSys. IBM (who had also bid on the contract) protested the award, and I was called to NASA headquarters to defend my specification and evaluation to the Government Accounting Office (GAO)….I had to go toe-to-toe with the IBM proposal-writers, they came out second-best, with GAO sustaining our evaluation and award (it was rumored afterward that IBM fired some of their people over that embarrassing confrontation with NASA)…..the point here being that folks up-and-down the ranks of NASA (by which I mean top management down to technical working levels) were typically quite competent in those early days!
In another example, I had a crew of 10 people who did the entire job of developing boost abort simulations for Gemini and Apollo astronaut training. As the Shuttle program begin, when NASA considered out-sourcing the jobs that our little team had performed reliably, on-schedule, and in budget, a sub-contract bidder proposed a crew of over 30 people to do what we did!!! gross waste and abuse of the government system. Eventually, when I saw the handwriting-on-the-wall, that my days of doing technical work was soon to be over at NASA, I left.
In my opinion, after Apollo, NASA progressively lost vision of how to get the most for their buck and inspire the “man on the street” (just look at the ISS and see what it has yielded for all its cost….constructing an ISS is something that makes more sense to me after a space elevator is in place whereby payloads can be delivered to orbit at a fraction of the current cost). The ISS has mainly inspired “yawns” by the public.
It is not clear that NASA’s current vision is valid; about a year ago, a group of high-level, space visionaries, ex-astronauts, and technologists, independent of NASA, convened a private panel at Stanford to re-evaluate NASA’s current “Space Initiative” and propose new ways to better use resources and re-direct the mission’s vision. It has been conjectured that this was aimed at presenting a new plan for consideration by the next administration. While I am not sure what has become of this, as I recall, their conclusions were notably different to the current vision. There has been significant concerns voiced (from NASA contractors and independent technical observers) about engineering issues with many aspects of the current development.
When I look at what the ISS has cost, and compare that to, say JPL’s budget, and see what JPL has accomplished with its robotic explorations (in terms of actual scientific data-return as well as far-reaching public excitement), it is evident that NASA management is not conducting meaningful cost effective use of their budget.
The currently brewing gap in the US Manned Space Transportation system capability (that will result from the time lapse between the demise of the Shuttle operational capability, and the next operational manned capability) speaks for itself! While one is forced to admit that the Shuttle has turned out to be immensely more expensive than it was originally advertised to be, it is not apparent that the current manned space transportation system may not be heading for its own severely problematic manifestations. These manifestations may well hinge on unrealistic budgetary restrictions that precipitate late implementation and on-going technical issues, all with serious impact on national schedule priorities, operations, and national space logistics security.