Thursday, March 09, 2006

Risk and Reward

James Oberg has written an informative piece over at MSNBC. This article gives more details about the loss of the Mars Observer and Mars Climate Orbiter that I've ever heard before. I've been unsatisfied with the one-line excuses put forth by the media for the loss of these mission. These excuses have largely had the effect of making the engineers look incompetent when, if anything, it's been poor management practices which are ultimately to blame.

Mr. Oberg finishes the article by noting that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will benefit from lessons learned from these earlier missions. He also points out that these lessons should be more widely publicized so that other mission managers who may not have direct access to the mission failure reports will not have to learn them the lessons the hard way.

I am still somewhat ambivalent about these conclusions. On the one hand, I tend to think that all failures can be learned from and in these instances, certainly technical lessons were learned and put to good use on future missions. On the other hand, it's harder to see if the failure of project management has provided similar lessons and if those lessons have been taken to heart.

Why does it seem like mitigating program related risks is most often accomplished by adding more management? From where I sit, it seems like adding more management may increase reliability marginally, but at a much higher cost to the mission budget. For example, a recent article at NASA Watch talks about the cost overruns for the James Webb Space Telescope. Of the specific costs mentioned, nearly all seem to be a management solution to reducing risk. (I'm not sure why it cost $520 million to delay a decision about which launch vehicle to use, but I'm sure such a decision probably had a trickle down affect on may other decisions all of which had their own cost.)

As a counter example, consider the recent accomplishments of TSpace and SpaceX. Both have put together relatively small teams of engineers to bend metal and reduce program risk through building and testing of actual hardware. Now neither company has done anything as complex as building and launching interplanetary probe, although SpaceX has come very close with it's Falcon launcher and it's prototype Dragon capsule. My point is that these new companies are managing their perceived risks by facing them head on and staring them down rather than hedging their bets and slapping on additional layers of red tape.