When criticism of a trend is not criticism of a project.
There is the micro and the macro, the one down at the nuts and bolts, hardware I would see up close and lay my hands on, the other a view from 100,000 feet. Zoomed in, nose at the nitty gritty, there’s a drawing, a specification, forces, and dimensions. It was common in Space Shuttle operations to find myself trying to make heads or tails of a design that pre-dated my arrival by a decade at least. What were they thinking? Eventually, it made sense, most of the time, not always. With these shims and the spring-loaded washers, the Shuttle Orbiter and its external tank are held together with a specific force, or otherwise, a bad day. But our measurements show something is off, by a few thousandths here, or maybe there? So not enough force holding it all together.
Later that afternoon, I switched gears and zoomed out to a wide-angle view, analysis for some future project or technology. Here bracketing an answer was give or take a billion. This was often about direction, which way to head. This meant the macro-view was about choices, not being sure of the specifics but making a case for why one approach was preferable to another.
Jumping back and forth between these worlds was not common. Nevertheless, I believed the mix was necessary, the one lending reality and experience to the other. Eventually, I had to choose which world to work in full time (spoiler alert, I went into a world of advanced projects.) Which zone you are in is not easily confused, most of the time. But like much in life, I found there was an exception.
With the fantastic first pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope, the narrative of a project long delayed and costing many times more than advertised initially seems poised to be forgotten. Instead, the new story is about success, science, and the splendor of the starry night. Norm Augustine, a faithful steward of the aerospace enterprise, recently said, “overruns in cost and schedule can often be forgiven through great accomplishments, and the Webb telescope is exhibit one.” Forgiveness is sure to follow amazing feats of engineering that open the door to unimaginable scientific knowledge. Yet right along, this confuses the micro with the macro. A data point is not a trend, and criticism of a trend is not criticism of a project.
If you haven’t heard of Augustine’s Laws in the aerospace business, you have not yet attended your first meeting where a project gets “re-baselined.” Here we find out the initial cost and schedule were not official. As well, somehow, no one knows who put out that cost estimate, and in either case, the manager says the numbers should never have been put out there in the first place. This new estimate will be the real one. This is not the re-baseline you are looking for, though. There will be another, then another. Occasionally a voice in the desert will holler out how none of the cost or schedule estimates ever much passed a sniff test. This is because the project has been doing R&D for years. They just didn’t want to admit it. The project’s first years gathered knowledge, from which there eventually came better cost and schedule estimates. Then we spot a trend among these projects, and someone says, “looks like Augustine’s law.”
It wasn’t only the cliché of stepping back from the trees to see the forest. Instead, I had to also understand the environment.
After plotting many projects, Augustine notoriously stated what he saw as the trend for US fighter jets in his typical folksy way. As each fighter jet gets more expensive than the last, and fewer of these are produced, you arrive at Augustine’s 16th Law:
“In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”
Yet such a trend includes trusty and venerable aircraft like the F-16, a success story and a remarkable jet that will be flying with upgrades for the foreseeable future. This reminds us analysts, a trend is something else entirely from a specific project. While it’s tempting to say trends are many projects together on some graph, that also misses the point.
When I wore my program analysis hat, I found making sense of the tension between a project and a trend meant a mental shift. It wasn’t only the cliché of stepping back from the trees to see the forest. Instead, I had to also understand the environment. For NASA, the environment is the yearly budget. The connection between projects and budgets is a matter of actual hardware, people, and challenges caught up in an environment where the sand will shift under their feet.
Norm Augustine also notes this in his recent interview – noting a presumed (and oddly precise) $3 billion shortfall between NASA’s content and its yearly budget. Putting aside the off-the-cuff number (first seen in the wild over a decade ago), NASA’s budget trend is simply not good. NASA’s purchase power, its dollars after adjusting for inflation, is 20% less than in 1995. If NASA had $5 back then, now it has $4.
This means three paths for any NASA project, do better, do less, or after projects get racked and stacked, do fewer. First, your project might do for $4 what once took $5. Second, you might tell the boss, sorry, this next probe does less than the last one (good luck getting funded.) Or lastly, where once you had ten probes on the burners, now you have eight. And this is the good news.
More interest on the US federal debt squeezes other spending. Other spending – as in NASA.
Coming out of the pandemic, supply chains are not quite what they once were, not that excess capacity was ever admired. Russia invading Ukraine has sent oil and gas prices up into a tailspin and likely up again soon. Yet, for odd reasons, the US Federal Reserve thinks increasing interest rates will help cool off inflation, usually a result of easy money and so excessive demand, not broken supply. At any rate, higher interest on the US federal debt will pressure the entire US budget, as interest on the debt is particularly sensitive to the cost of borrowing. More interest on the US federal debt squeezes other spending. Other spending – as in NASA.
Would a scaled-up Webb, the LUVOIR space telescope at 8 to 15 meters in diameter vs. Webb’s 6.5, thrive in such an environment? NASA’s recent decadal survey admits the answer is probably not, merely on cost. Now imagine where probably not was the optimistic answer.
Apart from a particular project, its merits, and the scientific wonders it promises to deliver, an analyst must step back. Way back. Farther. Another Law: “Time screws up everything.” (Also 2nd Law.) Everything might, with optimistic assumptions, right now, maybe add up (in theory). Program analysts know it’s when we plot against time that we find the real problems no one wants to hear about. On decadal time scales, a program analyst at 100,000 feet quickly sees a chapter for the promised report. It’s conceivable we will find ourselves in the year 2030-something, glad to have upgraded Hubble way back when and again. The Webb has recently ceased functioning, never designed to be refueled or upgraded like Hubble. So then, there is no Webb follow-up in the foreseeable budget environment. Worried about an ISS gap? What about a space telescope gap.
This is all very linear, and thankfully time and space are not always linear. So rather than doing less, or doing fewer, picking “do better” is a possibility. Because NASA enjoys doing the impossible, imagine where we “potentially produce larger lenses at a fraction of their current price and in a fraction of the current manufacturing time.” As far out as a “liquid lens” may seem, this type of R&D responds to the environment ahead.
Similarly, innovative exoplanet science, characterizing planets in other solar systems, may come through starshades. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is also funding work on a starshade looking for exoplanets.
NASA budgets are limited, and prospects look worse. What’s not limited is the ability to imagine doing better and more, for less. We have seen NASA embrace commercial partnerships that do exactly this. The practice of placing wonderful projects on the chopping block, so the fewer surviving projects can do wonders, will hardly pass. Neither can NASA lose sight of the trends, budgets and the dull stuff setting the environment, and how to prosper anyway. Multitask, and you can do this as you take in the pictures that leave you in awe.
- NASA’s (really) declining budget
- The valley of death
- In the end
- NASA, aerospace, and optimism – in search of the right setting
- Is this now?
10/18/2022: Corrected the link above to the applicable decadal survey.