Author Topic: Why do contractors make so much money but aren't responsible when things go wrong?  (Read 7592 times)

Offline ulm_atms

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Snip*

Of course it's not the contractors fault that the JWST was not designed to be serviceable, it's NASA's. And to be fair, when NASA was designing the JWST way back in 1996 the idea of servicing a science platform at L1 - with humans - was a bit of a stretch.

I know that's not the contractor's issue...you just don't want to see any sloppiness/carelessness on something that can't be fixed.  That the contractor can avoid.

But as far as JWST's design back then.  After the Hubble issues...you would of thought they would design in some ways to fix some things if something went wrong/wasn't right.  One thing I always wondered is why they couldn't of launched it to LEO, deploy everything, checked everything, and then had something like a small ion drive with enough fuel to slowly get it out to L1 for service and if possible, have enough to get it back to LEO if something needed to be fixed and then go back out to L1....like your tug.

Online Coastal Ron

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I know that's not the contractor's issue...you just don't want to see any sloppiness/carelessness on something that can't be fixed.  That the contractor can avoid.

Just because I haven't mentioned specific areas of failure on the part of Northrop Grumman doesn't mean I don't think there is any. It just wasn't a topic I was ready to delve into. Remember I've worked in the "belly of the beast", so I understand the incentives program managers have to generate revenue.

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But as far as JWST's design back then.  After the Hubble issues...you would of thought they would design in some ways to fix some things if something went wrong/wasn't right.

Back then, with then-current technology, L1 was not able to be reached by reusable vehicles (i.e. vehicles that can go to more than one location).

Even today we're just at the edge of starting up industry services for space tugs and for in-space servicing of satellites - with the operational start date TBD.

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One thing I always wondered is why they couldn't of launched it to LEO, deploy everything, checked everything, and then had something like a small ion drive with enough fuel to slowly get it out to L1 for service and if possible, have enough to get it back to LEO if something needed to be fixed and then go back out to L1....like your tug.

There are far more knowledgeable people than I on this topic, but from what I've gathered the JWST is designed to operate in the extreme cold of space, and with a major heat source coming from one direction - the sun. And in fact some of it's complex systems deal with how to operate reliably in such cold.

However objects in LEO have to deal with not only the sun as a heat source, but the reflection of the sun off of the Earth as a heat source too. That would mean the ability to deploy and test in space for the JWST would require MORE design elements that would deal with that additional heat source - thus adding even MORE complexity to the current design.

Now that we have proven in-space assembly of large structures (i.e. the ISS), we could move to a modular architecture that does do what you suggest, and would provide the ability to retrieve and fix equipment if necessary.
If we don't continuously lower the cost to access space, how are we ever going to afford to expand humanity out into space?

Offline woods170

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But now we are on the edge of a world where reusable rockets and commercial crew vehicles are part of our reality, and I would advocate that somewhere in NASA they should be considering what the next generation of standards should be for Earth-local remote systems.

For instance, and this gets to the national "leadership" issue, NASA could decide that all future Earth-local major science platforms be equipped for not only capture (like Hubble), but movement from their location of science to a location of service. Then all that would be needed are space tugs and commercial habitats to set up a service location. No doubt this would cost a good chunk of money to set up, but the long term benefits should pay for itself. Plus this would help create new industries, which is always a good side effect of government spending.  :)

Just trying to think of ways to eliminate situations like this...

regardless, JWST type telescope is not a viable platform for servicing. 

Correct. When one decides to do a telescope that is non-servicable, due to both location and architecture, one should be well advised to keep it cheap. So that in case the telescope experiences an anomaly, that renders it useless, replacement(s) can be sent up on the cheap.

However, JWST is neither servicable, nor cheap. If any of the deployments goes awry NASA will have a $9.6B failure on their hands. The resulting (political) storm and fall-out will dwarf what NASA experienced when Hubble was first deployed with its flawed mirror.

So, here's hoping that JWST deployment goes perfectly.

Offline Starlab90

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Insofar as lack of responsibility, I don't think any NASA employees lost their jobs over Challenger or Columbia.  I think some may have been promoted.

For background, civil servants can be terminated for either of two broad reasons: misconduct or poor performance. Termination for misconduct is much quicker, and for some offenses, it can happen with amazing swiftness. I have heard stories of security guards showing up at an employees desk and escorting them off the center, or even arresting them.

Termination for poor performance is another matter altogether and requires quite a bit of work and quite a bit of time (6 months or more) on the part of a supervisor to do. As far as I know, nobody was ever terminated for poor performance because of Challenger or Columbia or similar incidents. So very strictly speaking, the above quote is true.

However...

There have been a number of times when senior managers have been reassigned to positions of lesser or even no responsibility, and in many of those cases, those reassignments prompted the managers to quit or, if they were eligible, retire. Reassignments like this happened after both Challenger and Columbia. They have also happened with Hubble, with CxP, with SLS, and with a number of other projects.

For a senior manager who had previously performed well and enjoyed a successful career, reassignments like this can be devastating and humiliating. You can debate whether or not the punishment fits the crime, but don't ever think there is no consequence for poor performance by a senior manager.

Offline Starlab90

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But this is why you need well trained NASA program managers, and executives running NASA that understand how to manage large, complex programs.

Completely agree with this statement, but even more important are well-trained contractor program managers and executives. Very often companies will not assign their "A team" to a NASA project because they have a much more profitable DoD project they want to put their best people on. If you get a contractor manager who performs well, very often either his company will promote him to a higher-paying position with a DoD project, or he/she will get a good job offer from another company. Then you're left training a new contractor manager.

Offline Semmel

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I agree with everything you said, just want to add some remarks.

You underestimate the need for a telescope like JWST in astronomy. Almost any astronomer wants that telescope. It is the most promising way to answer the remaining open questions in astronomy. If JWST gets canceled, the push of scientists will be to a new telescope just like JWST. There are many more telescopes needed for answering current open questions, but JWST or equivalent would give data for the largest chunk of it.

You do realize that your argument is exactly what was used to justify the cost of Hubble?

True, and Hubble was absolutely worth it. Its the instrument with

And guess what: Hubble observations led to more new questions than that it answered existing and old ones.

IMO JWST will do the same: When JWST is said-and-done there will be more new questions about the universe than that it will have answered old ones.

Maybe but you cant count on it. But a telescope like JWST must be worth it even if it fails to find anything which would rewrite the books. And sure, the more you know the more detailed questions you can ask, this is sort of true for any research.

But that aside I stick to the opinion that cancelling JWST in 2011 would have been the right thing to do. Because it would have led IMO to a more practical and affordable way of doing an in-space telescope of that size. JWST as it exists today is IMO overly complex and relies too much on new/unproven technology resulting in massive cost-overruns above-and-beyond the cost-overruns caused by the initial under-funding and poor management.

I actually agree. But upon cancellation of JWST in 2011, a new telescope with similar capabilities but maybe different implementation should have been proposed. In the "Lessons learned from JWST" talk on the recent SPIE, some key points for an alternative design were mentioned. See https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=45826.msg1831044#msg1831044

Offline Star One

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But is there any point in dragging up the fact that it could of been cancelled in 2011?

After all itís easy to parade your view on this topic with seven years of hindsight.
« Last Edit: 07/04/2018 11:47 am by Star One »

Offline Semmel

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But now we are on the edge of a world where reusable rockets and commercial crew vehicles are part of our reality, and I would advocate that somewhere in NASA they should be considering what the next generation of standards should be for Earth-local remote systems.

For instance, and this gets to the national "leadership" issue, NASA could decide that all future Earth-local major science platforms be equipped for not only capture (like Hubble), but movement from their location of science to a location of service. Then all that would be needed are space tugs and commercial habitats to set up a service location. No doubt this would cost a good chunk of money to set up, but the long term benefits should pay for itself. Plus this would help create new industries, which is always a good side effect of government spending.  :)

Just trying to think of ways to eliminate situations like this...

regardless, JWST type telescope is not a viable platform for servicing. 

Correct. When one decides to do a telescope that is non-servicable, due to both location and architecture, one should be well advised to keep it cheap. So that in case the telescope experiences an anomaly, that renders it useless, replacement(s) can be sent up on the cheap.

However, JWST is neither servicable, nor cheap. If any of the deployments goes awry NASA will have a $9.6B failure on their hands. The resulting (political) storm and fall-out will dwarf what NASA experienced when Hubble was first deployed with its flawed mirror.

So, here's hoping that JWST deployment goes perfectly.

JWST is not serviceable because the combustion products of approaching spacecrafts thrusters would condensate on the very cold mirror and other surfaces of JWST, ruining them in the process. Even if you would enclose JWST during the service, the thruster residuals would still be around on the outer surface, slowly sublimating, forming a cloud and condensating on the mirror once the cover is open. It has nothing to do with the architecture or location.

On the other argument, I agree that its too complex, which is acknowledged by the JWST team as well. Lessons learned, see above. And yeah.. that thing better does works. Otherwise there would be many many very angry and disappointed astronomers around.

Offline Semmel

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But is there any point in dragging up the fact that it could of been cancelled in 2011?

After all itís easy to parade your view on this topic with seven years of hindsight.

Yes, if you want to improve in the future, a critical view of the past is essential. And learning "what we should have done" is quite important. In this forum and in this thread, maybe not so much. So lets leave it at that before the delete button arrives on 4 horses and nukes this thread ;)

Offline Jim

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But this is why you need well trained NASA program managers, and executives running NASA that understand how to manage large, complex programs.

Completely agree with this statement, but even more important are well-trained contractor program managers and executives. Very often companies will not assign their "A team" to a NASA project because they have a much more profitable DoD project they want to put their best people on. If you get a contractor manager who performs well, very often either his company will promote him to a higher-paying position with a DoD project, or he/she will get a good job offer from another company. Then you're left training a new contractor manager.

NASA missions are just part of the company's PR program

Online Coastal Ron

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But this is why you need well trained NASA program managers, and executives running NASA that understand how to manage large, complex programs.

Completely agree with this statement, but even more important are well-trained contractor program managers and executives. Very often companies will not assign their "A team" to a NASA project because they have a much more profitable DoD project they want to put their best people on. If you get a contractor manager who performs well, very often either his company will promote him to a higher-paying position with a DoD project, or he/she will get a good job offer from another company. Then you're left training a new contractor manager.

Contractor expectations are usually part of the contract, but if the NASA side of the house is not willing or able to enforce the requirements, then it's up to the contractor as to whether they will abide by them - which if it costs any money then the answer is probably "if I don't have to, I won't".
If we don't continuously lower the cost to access space, how are we ever going to afford to expand humanity out into space?

Offline FinalFrontier

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You underestimate the need for a telescope like JWST in astronomy. Almost any astronomer wants that telescope. It is the most promising way to answer the remaining open questions in astronomy. If JWST gets canceled, the push of scientists will be to a new telescope just like JWST. There are many more telescopes needed for answering current open questions, but JWST or equivalent would give data for the largest chunk of it.

You do realize that your argument is exactly what was used to justify the cost of Hubble?

And guess what: Hubble observations led to more new questions than that it answered existing and old ones.

IMO JWST will do the same: When JWST is said-and-done there will be more new questions about the universe than that it will have answered old ones.

But that aside I stick to the opinion that cancelling JWST in 2011 would have been the right thing to do. Because it would have led IMO to a more practical and affordable way of doing an in-space telescope of that size. JWST as it exists today is IMO overly complex and relies too much on new/unproven technology resulting in massive cost-overruns above-and-beyond the cost-overruns caused by the initial under-funding and poor management.

JWST was done the way it was because it had to be. It wasnít wilfully designed that way for the sake of it.

With your overly-conservative approach we would never make any progress in delivering capabilities.

It seems as if when private industry breaks new ground for progress itís applauded but when NASA tries a similar approach it gets condemned. We often hear people complaining NASA is too conservative. So it seems to be case of them being dammed if they do and dammed if they donít.

Industry and NASA can break new ground perfectly fine while still adhering to the KISS principle. Unfortunately, neither NASA, nor industry did so in the case of JWST.
JWST is overly complex, with too many mission-critical deployment steps. If just a single one of those steps goes awry it is mission-over for JWST.

That is the scary part for me in all of this.  Since it has to be deployed at L1, there is no way to fix it (unlike Hubble) if there are any issues with any the moving parts during deploy.  Shoot, Hubble was a colossal screw up at first but at least it was built to be fixed to a point and we could actually get there to fix it.

So this telescope, with all it's complexity, and no way to fix any issues after deploy, makes hearing of all of these issues from NG scary to read/hear.  KISS should be adhered to especially if there is no way to fix it post launch.

Actually that's note entirely true. You just need a vehicle with enough power to get you to L1. Or some in orbit refuel-ling.

A few vehicles come to mind including two that currently exist. The problems is such a mission would be very unlikely to be mounted because I am sure they would find a way to insist that it was too risky or make up some excuse for why it couldn't be done.

But you could actually get there. It's just highly unlikely NASA would do so because:

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regardless, JWST type telescope is not a viable platform for servicing.

This is the real issue. Not a serviceable design.
« Last Edit: 07/05/2018 05:26 am by FinalFrontier »
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Offline vulture4

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In some cases contractors are responsible. SpaceX gets paid only for completing milestones, however that comes at a cost of less government oversight, and it is hard to sell anyone in power on the idea that giving up some power might be a good thing.

Once a contractor has been chosen the government cannot change its mind without essentially giving the contractor a blank check. In the case of Webb the government made multiple changes over the course of the program that increased requirements rather than sticking to the original plan.

Contractors that are publicly held have no choice but to maximize profits. Their boards are often controlled by large stockholders who have the primary objective of maximizing their short term wealth, not maximizing our knowledge of the universe. A CEO who tried to take a longer view would lose his job. That is perhaps why Musk does not want SpaceX to go public.

With Hubble launching a new spacecraft periodically might have been cheaper than the servicing flights. That may be why the concept of servicintg was dropped. Yet with Webb there seems to be no plan to replace the spacecraft if it fails. That may be a mistake.
« Last Edit: 07/05/2018 02:12 pm by vulture4 »

Offline nicp

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At the risk of drifting off topic, was Hubble designed to be serviceable to give the shuttle something to do?
(I was _seriously_ impressed by those missions - you might suggest launching multiple Hubble's each with upgrades over the last might have been cheaper but you would have lost that spacewalk experience).

Back on topic - Hubble was over budget, though perhaps some of that was due to delay caused by the Challenger accident. In comparison, is Webb (or any other more recent project ) - hugely _more_ overbudget in comparison? In real terms?
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Offline SWGlassPit

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In some cases contractors are responsible. SpaceX gets paid only for completing milestones, however that comes at a cost of less government oversight, and it is hard to sell anyone in power on the idea that giving up some power might be a good thing.

Once a contractor has been chosen the government cannot change its mind without essentially giving the contractor a blank check. In the case of Webb the government made multiple changes over the course of the program that increased requirements rather than sticking to the original plan.

Contractors that are publicly held have no choice but to maximize profits. Their boards are often controlled by large stockholders who have the primary objective of maximizing their short term wealth, not maximizing our knowledge of the universe. A CEO who tried to take a longer view would lose his job. That is perhaps why Musk does not want SpaceX to go public.

With Hubble launching a new spacecraft periodically might have been cheaper than the servicing flights. That may be why the concept of servicintg was dropped. Yet with Webb there seems to be no plan to replace the spacecraft if it fails. That may be a mistake.

Emphasis added.  Requirements/scope creep is a huge reason projects blow through budget and schedule.  A contractor executing a cost-plus contract on a NASA-managed project has neither power nor incentive to push back on NASA-generated creep.  At best, they can say, "here's what we think it will cost," and "yes, sir," while billing the hours.


Offline Proponent

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At the risk of drifting off topic, was Hubble designed to be serviceable to give the shuttle something to do?
(I was _seriously_ impressed by those missions - you might suggest launching multiple Hubble's each with upgrades over the last might have been cheaper but you would have lost that spacewalk experience).

More to the point, I think, is that NASA was happy to show off the Shuttle's ability to service Hubble, regardless of cost. Had replacement rather than repair been the only option, I'll bet the astrophysics division would have had an uphill battle in getting the money, even if it was actually cheaper. Servicing was effectively a way of transferring money from the HSF budget to the science budget. Usually it goes the other way around.
« Last Edit: 07/07/2018 03:07 am by Proponent »

Offline MATTBLAK

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In answer to the thread title's question: that's the $64 billion dollar question (literally), isn't it... :(
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Offline Star One

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In answer to the thread title's question: that's the $64 billion dollar question (literally), isn't it...

Itís not just NASA who has to deal with this, talk to the USAF.
« Last Edit: 07/08/2018 08:26 pm by Star One »

Offline Jim

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This is the real issue. Not a serviceable design.

It is not the design, it is the type of telescope.  IR cooled with sunshield.   Neither like thruster plumes

Online Coastal Ron

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Just trying to think of ways to eliminate situations like this...

regardless, JWST type telescope is not a viable platform for servicing.

Obviously. Which was why I was suggesting FUTURE solutions...  ;)
If we don't continuously lower the cost to access space, how are we ever going to afford to expand humanity out into space?

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