The space industry’s balancing act

To miss the ongoing debate on NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin’s “faster, cheaper, better” method of conducting space missions, you’d have to be grubbing around in the bottom of a dry valley somewhere on Mars. Mind you, if that’s where NASA’s Mars probes were, there wouldn’t be a debate. So perhaps it’s just as well NASA suffered a few embarrassing failures; at least the industrial contractors that build the spacecraft have started questioning the new religion.

To characterize Goldin as an evangelist for space is no exaggeration. He has proved to be one of the most passionate and outspoken NASA administrators ever, and even those with reservations as to his methods cannot deny that he has been good for the agency. However, the problem with strong leaders lies in the very asset that makes them good at their job: their power of persuasion. Most people are only too keen to follow the guidance of a leader, preferring to believe in that leader’s apparent infallibility rather than make a value judgment based on their own experience — and apart from that, when things go wrong, they have someone to blame.

Goldin has taken a spaceship-load of blame for faster-cheaper-better, but only part of it is justified. In the wake of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander failures, it appears that project managers at NASA center and their industrial contractors have been far too shy to question the logic of attempting hugely complex missions at bargain basement prices.

True, space missions had become too expensive, but one can only cut costs so far. Contractors are still designing, developing and building products expected to operate faultlessly in an alien environment, for a number of years, without so much as an intermediate service check. These are not mass-produced family cars we’re talking about: they are high-tech, substantially unique engineering creations.

The same philosophy applies to communications satellites and the industrial contractors that build them. Their version of faster-cheaper-better has been handed down, not from Daniel Goldin, but from customers demanding more satellite technology per dollar, delivered in a shorter timescale. Like NASA’s contractors, fear of losing business has driven satellite builders to the altar of the customer, begging bowl in hand. Despite the fact that the contractors know more than the customers ever will about building satellites, they bow to the customer’s decrees and compress their manufacturing schedules. The alternative is to lose contracts, lay off workers, upset shareholders and generally benefit their competitors.

But as it has with NASA, the balance has swung too far towards the customers. It is time for the satellite industry to conduct a critical analysis of the new religion, shrug off its adolescent shyness and say no to some of what its customers are preaching (specifically, the compression of delivery schedules).

To do so will be in everyone’s best interest. Satellites will once again be manufactured and tested in an uncompromising fashion, fewer spacecraft will miss their launch slots, and fewer will suffer the ignominy of in-orbit failure. Manufacturers will no longer forfeit their performance payments or claim on their delay-insurance policies; launch vehicle operators will be able to operate to a predictable timetable, stabilizing cash flow and enhancing operational efficiency; customers will benefit from predictable launch schedules and many years of reliable service at a reasonable price.

Today, this sounds like an unachievable idyll, but it’s the way the satellite industry used to operate…before someone decided to test the adage that “the customer is always right.”

Within the confines of competitiveness, the space industry needs to address its working practices. In the aftermath of the Mars mission failures, one U.S. space industry executive was quoted as saying that employees working on s Deep Space 1 mission averaged a working week of 52 hours. The implication was that this was reasonable compared with the 60 hours-plus quoted elsewhere for the Mars missions. Anyone with industry experience knows that satellite programs are hard work, but expecting excellence from anyone working 10-hour days, six days a week, for a year or more is whistling in the Martian wind.

On the other hand, building satellites takes time. When the French Government implemented a reduced, 35-hour week recently, workers at Alcatel Space in Toulouse walked out on a token half-day strike; presumably they couldn’t afford to extend it due to pressure of work.

Certainly, it’s a difficult balance. Industry needs contracts to survive, but poor performance on unrealistic contracts will eventually topple the industry. Margins are built into contract bids to cover potential problems, but satellite manufacturing is not like building kit-cars. There is almost always a degree of product development built in: a new antenna or multiplexer to design, or a more stringent spec to meet. Offering such enhancement is part of the bid-winning process and it is something the contractor does with full knowledge of the challenges ahead.

Industry has to be competitive, but it needs to be honest, too. It is time for contractors to stop following the faster-cheaper-better religion, in blind faith, and question the logic of a process that drives them to produce inferior products that are demonstrably bad for business and may ultimately lead to a fall from the high-wire of satellite contracting.

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