Author Topic: Why do contractors make so much money but aren't responsible when things go wrong?  (Read 7490 times)

Offline Star One

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Spinning out of the JWST thread just how are companies like NG seemingly able to walk away from a mess like this with their pockets still stuffed with public money but seemingly with minimum comeback. Especially here when the IRB have stated they cost US taxpayers one billion dollars through their actions?

Offline JH

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ol∑i∑gop∑o∑ly
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noun
a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers.

Offline ulm_atms

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I am of the feeling that as long as the money is going where Congress wants it to go, they don't care where the blame is...which is why no one is responsible.  This goes for LOTS of government programs. (SLS, F-35, etc...).

If the government actually wanted companies on the line for mistakes...they would issue contracts that actually do that.

Offline SWGlassPit

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If the government actually wanted companies on the line for mistakes...they would issue contracts that actually do that.

There's a limit to which the government can do that before the contractor backs out of negotiations, leaving the government with no one.

Offline Coastal Ron

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I've worked for big government contractors, so I've seen the good and bad. Here is my personal perpective.

There are two "forces" at work here:

1. NASA wants someone to build something that has never been built, and is a technological marvel.

2. Northrop Grumman is a very mature company with lots of engineering experience, and a need to make a profit.

So right away when you look at the motivations involved you can see that there is a bias toward spending a lot of money on the government's part, and for a willingness to take on expensive work of any kind on the part of Northrop Grumman.

Now to be fair, you could have honest people involved on both sides and still have cost overruns on a program like the JWST. So let's not automatically assume that there is greed or ineptitude at work.

But this is why you need well trained NASA program managers, and executives running NASA that understand how to manage large, complex programs. For instance, the designers of the JWST will always be biased towards spending money on optimal solutions, because it's not their money. And Northrop Grumman knows from decades of government contracting experience that it's more profitable if they take on more expensive work since they get a percentage of that work as profit.

Which is why many people have said (including me) that there isn't enough fear of failure at NASA from a program standpoint - that many think cost overruns will not lead to program cancellations. And even if they did they would not have their careers dinged by the failures, so where is the downside?

So what is the solution? Good program oversight by management, and members of Congress that are willing to every once in a while cancel a program when it gets too far out of budget. Because without consequences, no one will ever take responsibility.

My $0.02
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Offline TomH

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I am of the feeling that as long as the money is going where Congress wants it to go, they don't care where the blame is...which is why no one is responsible.  This goes for LOTS of government programs. (SLS, F-35, etc...).

If the government actually wanted companies on the line for mistakes...they would issue contracts that actually do that.

The primary reason for F-35 problems stems from the Pentagon, not LM. LM and Boeing were given a list of requirements for all 3 variants of the JSF. Keep in mind, that each of those 3 airframes was already going to be used in multiple roles, e.g. attack, Growler (jammer). As soon as the down select was made of X-35 over X-32, all 3 services immediately heaped numerous additional requirements to their own version of the platform. Forcing so many options into multiple versions of one platform is what initiated so many problems.

Offline mike robel

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I'm a contractor (not NASA) and not a high level employee.  This is my opinion and observations.  Other contractors may have different observations and government civilians may have different ones.

It used to be that aerospace corporations were limited by statute in the amount of profit they can make.  The amount of something like 7% comes to mind.

The bulk of the financial dollars comes from awards that are built into Cost Plus contracts.  This can be sizeable.

One company, when I worked for them, refused to even consider Firm Fixed Price contracts because of the constant changes that come from the government customer.  On the small program I managed, I had to talk for 3 hours with the corporate VP for our sector to get a $100,000 contract.  Everyone around was stunned when I got his approval.  We delivered on time and below 100,000, too.

I've also seen programs that failed to pass VV&A with some unpleasant results and I've also seen Stop Work orders and see the little people lose their jobs as a result through no fault of their own.  Can't say I have seen a lot of management get fired, but I have seen some.

Another reason the government may keep paying a contractor money is the cancellation fees may off set any savings.

In my time, I have not seen dishonest or corrupt people on either side of the civil service - corporate fence.  I've seen some I consider incompetent on both sides and I have met (not from NASA, I don't work with them) some government people who don't pay any attention to what I tell them during testing; and they don't know about what I test, don't appear to care about it, and seem to want to be someplace else.


My knowledge comes from the Defense Simulation Industry and not aerospace, but I've worked for three of the fairly big names in the industry.

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. 


Offline ulm_atms

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If the government actually wanted companies on the line for mistakes...they would issue contracts that actually do that.
There's a limit to which the government can do that before the contractor backs out of negotiations, leaving the government with no one.

Oh I agree.  And Costal Ron is correct to.  I have no problem when cost overruns are because of things out of people's control, it has never been done before type things, or when the customer keeps changing the specs during development.  Those things happen in every sector.

It's when pure carelessness (not following documented procedures, not checking required checklists before doing things, etc...) happen.  That kind of stuff needs to land squarely in the contractors pocket book....but it never seems to most of the time.  The last time I remember a contractor going "Oops, my bad...we'll forgo our profit." was LM on that sat that was dropped due to not following procedures.  But even then taxpayers had to pay quite a bit more money to fix it.  I firmly believe LM should of shouldered all costs to fix it.

But to the above quote.  The contracts don't need to be tightened up where no one would want to bid....but they could tighten them more they are now...my 2 cents.

Offline Coastal Ron

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It used to be that aerospace corporations were limited by statute in the amount of profit they can make.  The amount of something like 7% comes to mind.

I thought I remembered something like that too from when I was working for government contractors, but a friend of mine that was a recent subcontracts manager for a large government contractor said regarding contractor profit targets that "absent adequate price competition, services less than 9%, manufacturing less than 15%".

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The bulk of the financial dollars comes from awards that are built into Cost Plus contracts.  This can be sizeable.

I would agree that they can be lucrative. And this type of work is the least predictable in scope, meaning it can go up substantially without much notice.

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Another reason the government may keep paying a contractor money is the cancellation fees may off set any savings.

While that is a factor, I would not think it's predominate.

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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.

Which is why I mentioned in my other post about the need for consequences, otherwise there is little downside to making big mistakes. Which needs to be understood as being different from taking on risk - risk is good when it's recognized, but inept management is usually something that magically appears when it's too late to make a correction...  :o
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 Rocket Science

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It's the "Iron triangle" in US politics that continues on regardless of the party in power...
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_triangle_(US_politics)
« Last Edit: 07/05/2018 02:16 pm by Rocket Science »
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Offline woods170

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So what is the solution? Good program oversight by management, and members of Congress that are willing to every once in a while cancel a program when it gets too far out of budget. Because without consequences, no one will ever take responsibility.

Emphasis mine.

And that's why, IMO, the JWST should have been cancelled by US Congress back in early 2011, as a result of the damning Casani report.
Doing so would have sent everyone involved (NASA, science institutes, contractors) a clear message: "Next time, get your act together, or else face the consequences".

But unfortunately US Congress lacked the nerve to kill JWST; the gravy train had to keep rolling.

Offline FinalFrontier

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It's called an Oligarchy. Congratulations you live in one.

How this system works and how this sort of theft is accomplished is complicated. But a very short summary would be:

1. Very small number of companies are the only producers and sellers of needed industrial capacity.
2. They have very powerful lobbyists and friends and can literally by swaths of the government and do.
3. As a result they are not regulated and are given free passes on a variety of things.
4. Everybody makes money. Politicians get their careers and personal nests made, company gets tons of tax dollars, product may or may not actually get built at the end of the day. Chances are if it does it is often deeply flawed (F35 program).

Meanwhile you lose, the sciences and technology sectors lose since such a system must actively oppose innovation in order to continue to exist, and all our money is wasted.

JWST is a small example. CXP and SLS are the bigger cousins.

NASA as a whole is a small example however, F35 program and things like it are much bigger brother in terms of waste.

If a contractor was ever truly held accountable it would disrupt the natural order, and nobody involved wants that because it would cause everyone in the racket to lose money. Therefore they aren't.

Meanwhile SpaceX and a few others are trying to knock these guys off the top, but ultimately to what end remains to be seen.

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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. For instance, the designers of the JWST will always be biased towards spending money on optimal solutions, because it's not their money. And Northrop Grumman knows from decades of government contracting experience that it's more profitable if they take on more expensive work since they get a percentage of that work as profit.

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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

Almost all of these were lost in the aftermath of Columbia, and later VSE CXP and the saga that followed. You could even argue you were losing these prior to 2003 and we have not had them for a long time now.

Too many delays, failed programs, and continuous re-directs the talent ultimately goes elsewhere (like to EELV companies).
« Last Edit: 07/03/2018 06:46 am by FinalFrontier »
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Offline Semmel

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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.
« Last Edit: 07/03/2018 08:53 am by Semmel »

Offline woods170

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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.
« Last Edit: 07/03/2018 11:27 am by woods170 »

Offline Star One

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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.
« Last Edit: 07/03/2018 11:43 am by Star One »

Offline woods170

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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.

Offline ulm_atms

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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.

Online butters

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The traditional US aerospace contractors remind me of the popular generalization about family businesses: the children of the founding patriarch often do okay, but the third generation is rarely up to the task of sustaining and evolving the empire.

These are big brand names with proud histories behind them, but the Jack Northrops and Kelly Johnsons are long gone, and so are their proteges. These are third- and fourth-generation companies in an industry where changing with the times is essential. It's not like they're selling a traditional product, like cheese produced according to a centuries-old family recipe.

At this stage in their corporate lifecycles, they have no vision, no values, and no culture of excellence. They behave like entitled rent-seekers and see their greatest financial opportunities in mergers and acquisitions.

Also having the government as a customer really sucks...

Offline Coastal Ron

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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.

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.

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...
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 Jim

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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. 

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.

Offline 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

Offline 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:

Quote
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 »

Online 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

Offline 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...  ;)
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Offline speedevil

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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

A very large cold mirror is a mission requirement - warming and cooling it back down is probably a bad idea, and would add additional cost.

The very fragile sunshield is a design choice imposed by the mass, packaging, and delta-v constraints.

There is no particular reason helium or hydrogen cold gas couldn't be used for final approach of a servicing mission for a clean-sheet designed telescope, even with a fragile sunshield and cold mirror.

Cold gas vernier thrusters with tiny thrust would need to be added if you're going to be servicing something with a fragile heatshield with the same constraints as JWST that was serviceable.

Yes, approach may take a week.

Yes, it may mean that you need a considerably more capable launch system to do the servicing than a hubble-like instrument.


Offline FinalFrontier

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Although it's OT you raised an interesting couple of points here.

First of all how well is that sun-shield going to do with MMOD I wonder. Especially since in ground testing so far the thing apparently ripped just trying to deploy it.

Second, to me this is another good example of a contractor issue with no accountability. I find it hard to believe there was not some alternative to this particular design element even in spite of the mass restrictions. If there truly wasn't then it's an example instead of a contractor being hurt by poor NASA mission planning and poor LV selection. Of course to be fair when JWST was first conceived we did not have/see more powerful wider fairing LV's coming any time soon.
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Offline speedevil

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Second, to me this is another good example of a contractor issue with no accountability. I find it hard to believe there was not some alternative to this particular design element even in spite of the mass restrictions. If there truly wasn't then it's an example instead of a contractor being hurt by poor NASA mission planning and poor LV selection. Of course to be fair when JWST was first conceived we did not have/see more powerful wider fairing LV's coming any time soon.

At the current (as of JWST design) launch options, you would have either had to live with a smaller sun-shield compromising science, do multiple launches with assembly, or had fewer layers and active cooling which raises its own issues.

The choice to do it in one launch - perhaps largely due to concerns about in-orbit assembly was NASAs, and with existing rockets once that choice was made, pretty much everything - foldable mirror, large fragile sunshield - flows from that.

Unfolding large structures in space, especially complex ones, was always going to be really expensive and risky. Who bears the risk is a contracting decision.

For such large projects, spending $300M or whatever in a couple of launches to reduce risk of in orbit assembly may actually have made sense.
 

Offline SWGlassPit

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First of all how well is that sun-shield going to do with MMOD I wonder. Especially since in ground testing so far the thing apparently ripped just trying to deploy it.

Well, to start with, there's no OD out there whatsoever, since it's not in earth orbit.  That cuts down a lot.

That leaves the meteoroid aspect.  On average, the omnidirectional flux for 0.1 mm meteoroids around earth is in the neighborhood of 10 per square meter per year, with a median encounter velocity around 25 km/s.  At that size and speed, you'll get a tiny pinhole in the first layer of the shield, if you penetrate it at all.  The quantity of particles drops off dramatically as you go up in size, and at those velocities, nearly all of the energy of impact will go into vaporizing the incoming particle.  You'll get pinholes, not rips, in the sunshield.

The bigger concern would be critical bus elements -- attitude and stationkeeping hardware, as well as science instruments.  In this environment, though, even very light shielding is likely plenty adequate.

Offline Jim

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 I find it hard to believe there was not some alternative to this particular design element even in spite of the mass restrictions. If there truly wasn't then it's an example instead of a contractor being hurt by poor NASA mission planning and poor LV selection. Of course to be fair when JWST was first conceived we did not have/see more powerful wider fairing LV's coming any time soon.


This is just wrong.  There is nothing wrong with the basic design.
The sun shield would still have to be deployable with larger fairings.

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