Don't pounce on failures

When NASA's budget came under pressure in the 1990s as part of efforts to balance the federal budget, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin did what few in Washington do: He accepted cuts without protest, wishing to challenge his organization to take a risk and show it could produce better results at less cost. Thus was born the "faster, better, cheaper" regime.

Goldin scrapped NASA's traditional approach to planetary exploration, which produced flights about twice a decade at a cost of $1 billion or more a pop. In its place, he began experimenting with multiple, lower-cost missions to Mars, aiming to launch a spacecraft a year. Goldin moved boldly in other areas as well, implementing cost-reduction and performance commitments for contractors operating the Kennedy Space Center, for example. The early applications of faster, better, cheaper produced resounding successes. The 1996 Pathfinder mission captivated the nation with its Mars photos. Thanks in significant measure to a creative new way to land a spacecraft safely (using airbag technology to cushion the landing), NASA fielded Pathfinder at one-fifth the cost of earlier Mars spacecraft.

Under Goldin's effort, three Mars missions have been successful. However, the three most recent have not. Now, Goldin's faster, better, cheaper philosophy is in the cross hairs.

Let's be blunt. Goldin's new way of doing business was never the object of universal acclaim. He has cut jobs and pushed agency employees hard, which have raised tension levels within NASA. He has killed multibillion-dollar contracts for galactic Cadillacs. There is no shortage of people anxious to move NASA backward.

That would be a tragedy. Clearly, the failure of three missions in a row raises a warning sign. This month, a NASA- appointed independent panel, the Young Commission, came out with a report assessing the failures of the three missions. The report contains useful insights about how to make the faster, better, cheaper approach successful.

Goldin has acknowledged that the failures of the recent missions suggest that the streamlined design process for these missions has been pushed beyond its limits. Surely, some tweaking — what in commercial industry would be called "continuous improvement" and seen as a virtue — is appropriate.

So let's tweak a success story, not demolish it. Even with the failed missions, NASA has made more progress since 1995 on Mars exploration, at less cost, than what the old strategy would have generated. Of the 22 flights in the history of Mars exploration, excluding those under Goldin's regime, half have failed.

We need more innovation and risk-taking, not less. It's a private-sector adage that if every effort you try succeeds, you haven't taken enough risks. We can't expect people in government to take risks if every time they fail we pounce on them. That's a recipe for producing bureaucrats.

Kelman was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Contact him at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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