The Wrong Stuff

February 27, 2011 - Reading time: 3 minutes

I just saw this article discussing the challenges of returning from Mars.

Returning from Mars is a large engineering problem that's independent from most (not all) aspects of getting there, and it's a good idea to start pondering the problem even though a specific mission architecture hasn't been agreed on.

What's sad is that ATK, Lockheed, and Grumman were NASA's choices.  This is the root of many of NASA's problems: an inability to divorce itself from the lumbering herbivores that have grown (over the last 5 decades) to define the agency.  Corporate behemoths like the ones named here (and several others) are where good ideas and creative thinkers go to die.  Tiny organizations have great ideas and accomplish amazing things with limited resources - this is the essence of engineering, and that type of thinking and motivation is what got us to the moon originally (yes, I realize that it was the same contractors back then.  That was 40 years ago).  Now, NASA meets its small business goals by having large contractors subcontract work to small companies. 

How does this manifest itself?  A couple of examples:

  1. I work on a NASA contract that is run by a very large contractor.  When said large contractor bid on the contract, they made small businesses an integral part of the contract by getting half a dozen small companies to be "teammates."  These teammates don't contribute their small corporate culture to the contract; in some cases I would say that their corporate culture has been killed by the relationship.  Instead, new employees are assigned to either the large contractor or one of the smaller ones when they are hired.  The only difference between a project engineer employed by contractor A or B is what company writes the paycheck, and a couple of layers of management.  Every day, I have to complete 2 timesheets - one for the prime contractor, and one for my teammate.  If I want to take a day off, I have to alert my project manager and section manager (prime contractor), local manager and teammate principal (my teammate), and my NASA customer.  Yes, 5 bosses.
  2. If I want to buy a widget from a large company, I submit an order to the purchasing people.  They see that the order is to a large company, so they instead submit the order to a small/disadvantaged/minority or woman-owned company that exists solely to place my order, add a markup, and then sell it to my contractor.  I get the part I asked for, but a couple of days later and 15% more expensive.

This is how the large contractors think, and they are consistently rewarded for these inefficiencies and the hundred other examples of syphilitic idiocy they dream up each day.  One lesson presented by the Orion program (I no longer refer to "lessons learned" because it's clear that we learn nothing) is that the large contractors preserve their profit margins by re-using as much of their aging junk as possible, because innovation takes time and energy.  Thus the "high-tech" glass cockpit of Orion was going to use LCD displays that were obsolete before PDR, because that's what the large contractor tasked with making them had lying around.

I'm sure that given enough time and money, this set of contractors could make a functional crew return vehicle for a Mars mission.  But what are the odds that they can make an excellent crew return vehicle?