Friday, April 10, 2009

Which Fox Was Guarding This Henhouse?

Fox News the bastion of fair and balanced reporting published a piece on Thursday April 9th, 2009 that was a little out of character for them. Fox’s Space News section has very little original content and the space section found on is interesting in that it contains far more links then most other news agencies, but most of it appears to be “bought” news. All of that is fine since most key news sites don’t provide much more than high level stuff and certainly not the depth that Fox has even if it is sourced from other areas.

Somehow on Thursday Google’s news search engine picked up an article that appeared on Fox’s site. The article titled: NASA by the Numbers: Cost Overruns Plague Key Projects turned out to be a one-by-one analysis of key NASA projects and how much more money it was costing than had been originally projected. That of course is newsworthy and no matter how passionate I am about the space program I want to make sure the money is spent wisely, but I also wanted to understand the facts. All of that could have been good reporting, but at the end of each project the “news” became an editorial on what could have been done with that money and called the numbers in NASA’s 2009 budget “eye-popping” and here verbatim is there example of those “eye-poppers”.

— $5.78 billion for space shuttle and International Space Station pr
ojects, equivalent to London's original estimated cost of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games;

— $577 million for heliophysics, the study of the sun and its effect on the solar system, or the amount of Missouri transportation projects to be funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act;

— $447 million for aeronautics research or the deficit currently facing Texas’ unemployment compensation fund;

— $173 million for entrepreneurs to develop commercial transport capabilities to the International Space Station, or the USDA’s total estimated cost of providing food, shelter and other necessities to 847 middle-income U.S. children for 18 years.

As you can see, Fox’s “attack” on NASA’s budget also became a judgment of space exploration in general. I’d certainly rather spend $5.78 billion on space than the Olympics. Ask the Chinese opinion of that one. After tens of billions spent on venues to host the games in Beijing that lasted about a month the sites are now seldom visited tourist attractions for curiosity seekers that cost more to maintain then the meager revenue they generate.

I’m guessing $173 million invested in high technology entrepreneurial companies that will create jobs and spur interest in science and technology by creating private space capabilities doesn’t sound like a wise investment either to Fox.

Now let’s look at the continued Fox attack on NASA by looking at their examples of the overruns. I’m not going to list them all, but just enough to give you a feel for the spirit of Fox’s article.

— Mars Science Laboratory: Costs have risen $657.4 million since October 2007. That’s equivalent to the gross domestic product of Grenada, according to the 2008 CIA World Factbook;

What an achievement it will be when we land a science lab the size of an SUV on the planet Mars. Fox should look at previous Mars missions like the rovers to see how the investment returned higher gains that originally planned. The rovers were to last ninety days. We’re now counting the time they’ve spent exploring in years.

— NPOESS Preparatory Project: Since October 2006, the price tag for NASA’s satellite to study atmospheric and sea temperatures has ballooned $121.8 million, or the amount New York Gov. David Paterson proposed to save in a December budget plan by deferring five days' pay until state workers end their employment or the state’s dismal financial situation allows repayment.

One minute we care about global warming the next we don’t. Does the reporter understand how sea temperatures affect climate? How El Nino and La Nina events have affected rainfall and in turn crop production? Where’s the analysis here of New York’s state budget? Are you’re telling me they’ve not wasted a dime of taxpayer’s money? Do some homework Fox. You’re ready to hand over money to New York without understanding or explaining how they spend their dollars.

— Kepler: NASA's spacecraft designed to discover Earth-like planets, launched last month from Cape Canaveral after a 9-month delay and a $97 million increase in costs, or the amount Oregon lawmakers hope to save in the state's budget by asking unionized state workers to agree to 24 unpaid furlough days in 2009-11;

There are people in the private sector this economy everyday that are losing jobs that won’t come back. These dollars help keep a few more employed, but like New York I’d like to see Oregon’s budget analyzed. I’d like to see the state’s staffing model. Did they create their own mess by overspending in good times? The good news for these workers in Oregon: After twenty-four days they’ll have a job to come back to.

— Dawn: Launched in September 2007, this $465 million asteroid probe is expected to visit asteroids Vesta and Ceres during its 3-billion mile trip to better understand the formation of the solar system. Costs have increased $4.6 million since October 2006, roughly equal to the deficit facing the city of Bloomington, Ind.

Yes, Bloomington, Indiana did have a projected deficit of $2.2 million dollars in 2009 (Source: City of Bloomington Budget), but they also had a cash on hand balance of $4.4 million to start the budget year and a rainy day fund of $4.8 million. The city budget includes construction of a dog park so I’m assuming that the needs of the human population have all been met. Next to New Horizon’s exploration of Pluto this is probably the most interesting mission in progress. Few probably know that Ceres was once considered a planet. The largest object in the asteroid belt has not been explored and we don’t have good images of this round, dwarf planet. This project is the type that should spur the intellectual curiosity of young minds and want them to understand science and the universe outside of planet earth.

The Fox article goes on and one. Endlessly proposing how we could have spent dollars allocated for science and space exploration elsewhere. There is no author listed on the article just FOXNEWS. A few comments on the article:

  1. Not fair and not balanced. This isn’t an article, but an editorial. Somewhere I missed that in the disclaimer (there wasn’t one of course). The underlying theme of the article is that dollars spent at NASA should be spent elsewhere. This article isn’t just about cost overruns, but about the entire budget. It is a thinly veiled attack on space exploration.

  2. Government is loaded with waste. NASA like any company and organization will have its share, but to a lesser degree than most would think. Space is dangerous and complex; it is a constant learning environment. It is a difficult thing to do and do right 100% of the time. The complexity, difficulty and harsh environment stack the odds against every mission yet NASA succeeds over and over. The majority of things NASA does are being done for the first time in human history. Those types of things have no precedent, no previous experience, and no past project to reference as a timeline. It is incredibly difficult to forecast. Criticize that someone didn’t estimate the unknown properly or didn’t pad the budget as is the typical practice, but don’t diminish the value of the work.

  3. Where is the Fox analysis on the real waste in the Federal Government? Let’s look at some examples over the past six years. Medicare’s waste cup runneth over and over. Let’s talk about the overpayment of prescription drugs by Medicare - three, four, five, six times what other government agencies spending for the same medicine. The tip of the iceberg. What about unaccounted for dollars missing an explanation as to its use? $50 billion that no one can tie to any specific use or project, but the money is gone. How about this for an efficient operation - Congress ran a test on the Department of Education by submitting fraudulent documents. The result, approval and a check to a fictitious person using false information to the tune of $55,000. Just a few examples. NASA spends $17 billion and look what we get. Where is Fox trying to track down the missing $50 billion? That certainly seems like a big story.

  4. In good times State and Local governments have spent like drunken sailors building stadiums and arenas funding projects that they couldn’t pay for immediately, but assumed that they would as long as the good times kept rolling. The good times have come to an end and the bill for the waste is coming due. Now, state and local governments have their hand out asking for money under the flag of we’ve done it all right. They haven’t. The Fox article takes a one-sided approach that space is bad business in a down economy perhaps bad business in any economy. Where was Fox when cities and states mortgaged their future on projects less worthy of funding? NASA makes an easy target, but this article is biased. Plain and simple.

This Fox article was hardly worth my time for true space aficionados are use to the “why send people into space when we have problems on earth argument”, but I felt compelled to respond for this article is an opinion portrayed as news, a commentary and as such should have been noted. NASA makes an easy target for those that specialize is distorting the facts and is next only to the Defense Department as a highly visible target for this type of reporting. There are bigger fish to fry in the ocean of government waste. I’d like to see the unknown author of this article find those dollars for New York, Oregon and Bloomington and I think he could do it very quickly if he did a little homework and a little more investigative journalism.

What NASA does for science, education, environment, our understanding of why we’re here and the dangers lurking in space that could threaten us far outweigh the $17 billion we spend annually. I’m sure Fox wasn’t aware they picked up such a one-sided diatribe in their automatic feeds, but Google posted it as a Fox article so Fox must carry the responsibility for it. Next time Fox News read the information you post online that you pass off as news and at least make an attempt at providing a more complete balanced picture. After all it is your mantra.

This subject was worthy of a book’s worth of material and you encapsulated it into a few paragraphs. Do your homework Fox and get a full time space analyst on board to write for you online and provide insight into the missions and the exploration of space on cable. Stimulate minds for a change with the wonders of what we do in space and not deaden them with the endless political talk over and over.

Here is the link to the full article.,2933,513575,00.html

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Leading NASA

In the two months since Michael Griffin resigned as NASA Administrator a successor has yet to be named. While NASA is in competent hands under the interim direction of Chris Scolese we all understand the dynamics of being a “lame duck” especially in the political swirl of the Federal Government. NASA needs a new leader and one that will champion the causes for which the organization is charged and one that will bring the passion and leadership to help the many directorates reach even greater heights. In the past few months many names have been floated as the potential next administrator. Some with agency experience, some with military experiences, others with current roles in government administration and some from the ranks of Congressional leadership. With so many choices where should the Obama administration look for the next leader?

NASA’s history doesn’t give us a solid point of reference. Since its inception NASA has flourished during times of strong political backing, clear direction and financial support. It has languished during times when its capabilities and direction have been handcuffed by a diminished or unclear strategy, lack of political will and reduced budget support.
James Webb who directed the agency during quest for the moon is highly regarded as one of NASA’s best yet Webb was not an insider, but also had the advantage of unlimited resources and strong political backing. Sean O’Keefe was also an outsider, but an “administrative professional” as it related to running large government agencies. Michael Griffin was an insider, a highly skilled engineer, and could speak the language of science and physics, but lacked the charisma and political skills so crucial outside the agency. So which direction to choose?

There are two fundamental elements crucial to the success of any venture: the first is business acumen - whether were talking about a government agency or a company in the private sector they both need to be run like a business. Managing products, services, strategy, planning, marketing, finances, risk, customers, suppliers, shareholders, stakeholders and delivering flawless execution to a market that wants that product. The second is leadership. Great leaders lead in all facets of the business. One of the great flaws in many businesses is picking the most knowledgeable person about the product or service the organization produces to lead the organization. It can work, but it is a delicate balance for often this model stifles creativity and doesn’t allow the organization to reach its full potential. Rather than all levels of the organization contributing and innovating it drifts into execution of the singular vision of a single person and often that leads to a frustrated team and a “brain drain” as the best and brightest look for other opportunities.
Many great leaders often knew little about the business they ran, but they excelled in maximizing the potential of every person in the organization. They listened to their team, felt the pulse externally; they challenged ideas and conventional thinking, they made their team “prove” their ideas not because they didn’t believe, but they wanted to make sure the team believes, they connected the dots, knew the customers, knew the stakeholders and found ways to make the organization overachieve, and lastly they were passionate about what they did because the organization’s success was their driver.

NASA needs such a leader. It’s time to restructure the agency. Put the best leader that can be found at the top. Structure the agency so that there is a liaison to the military to ensure synergy and full leveraging of assets and a sharing of technology. Ensure that there are capable deputy administrators skilled in the day to day of operations and budgets. This will allow the leader to focus bringing together the vision and the talent to make NASA the world leader in space exploration for decades to come. NASA needs a leader who can craft a vision and sell that vision to the President, Congress and the American people. We’re falling into the same trap of years past in finding a person to run an agency and not a person to lead the agency.

One of the best and often used examples of success in this area is Lou Gerstner at IBM. Gerstner’s pick at IBM was a surprise to many. His history had been at American Express and RJR Nabisco. When Gerstner was selected to run IBM he was as outside as white shirt, blue suit IBM could get, but IBM was floundering. The massive technology conglomerate that was an American institution and an American success story had reached the highest points only to fall to near bankruptcy. Gerstner’s leadership, focus and marketing savvy are credited with saving IBM and positioned them to thrive. He let the IBM’ers do what they do best. His contribution was focus, direction and leadership.

This is where NASA is and the direction it needs to take is the same. The organization needs to leverage its immense reserves of talent under a new leader who can craft a sustainable vision that will survive for decades to come. Our lesson from the past is that without strong leaders and a strong vision success is evasive and the lack of direction stirs doubt and leads to waning support from the public and political leaders. Let’s get a new leader and let’s look to outside and resist the government insiders. NASA has shown what it can achieve and good times and lean years. The right leadership can take the agency to places it has yet to explore.