NASA learns the dark side of a sunny outlook

When exploring the solar system, NASA's 'we can do it' attitude is critical for success. On more down-to-earth projects, however, it can create problems.

Optimism does have a downside.

NASA’s inspector general found that the agency’s officials are too optimistic in ways which can hurt their programs. In a report released Sept. 27, the IG wrote that optimism causes mangers to overestimate their ability to beat the risks inherent in meeting their programs’ mission, given constraints on money and schedule. As a result, managers may set unrealistic cost and schedule estimates.

The IG interviewed 85 people from inside and outside of the agency, including the current and former administrators, associate administrators, center directors, and project managers. On a larger scale, the IG gathered input from the wider NASA community via a blog.

“It was clear from our interviews that a culture of optimism and a can-do spirit permeate all levels of NASA,” the IG wrote in the report.

That spirit can have the unfortunate side effect of obscuring reality. The IG reported that every project manager believed their projects had been successful, even those that had gone over budget and off-schedule.

The IG found that NASA officials didn’t document their measures of success for cost and schedule on their projects. They only clearly documented the project’s technical requirements as the measure for success.

The optimism increased the difficulty of developing and then maintaining realistic cost estimates.

“Many interviewees indicated that project managers and senior NASA leaders are often hesitant to admit they cannot overcome technological challenges or meet mission requirements within the funding profile provided,” the IG wrote.

Then the IG noted the “Hubble Psychology.” The report defined it as “an expectation among NASA personnel that projects that fail to meet cost and schedule goals will receive additional funding and that subsequent scientific and technological success will overshadow any budgetary and schedule problems.”

In other words, NASA officials believe that major NASA projects will get funding for science's sake, despite how the projects are managed.

The Hubble Space Telescope is one major project that exemplifies the risks of optimism in the report. The program has had its problems, but they have been mostly forgotten, the IG wrote.

Congress first approved funding for the Hubble in 1977, and it was originally planned for launch in 1986. It made it into space four years past the goal, in 1990, but NASA then had to make several fixes, including sending astronauts to repair its main mirror.

Now though, a Hubble image shows the farthest view into the universe and the telescope is seen largely as a national treasure.

Optimism is good for an agency, the IG wrote, but only if it is appropriately tempered.

“This culture can lead managers to underestimate the amount of time and money it will take to overcome the significant technical challenges inherent in many NASA projects,” according to the report.

Beyond an overly optimistic culture, NASA also faces challenges in managing cost and schedule because of the technical complexity of most agency projects. They also face unstable funding. Finally, there are fewer smaller projects where aspiring managers can gain hands-on experience.

NASA officials agreed with these management problems, even putting up checks and balances for the sake of management. But, they wrote in their response to the report, optimism needs to permeate throughout NASA.

“NASA believes that the culture of optimism is necessary to successfully accomplish the challenging tasks the nation has asked of us,” wrote Michael Ryschkewitsch, NASA’s chief engineer.

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