Bit of a bold claim I know but I thought that as president Barack Obama is giving his inauguration speech as I type I might as well tackle an issue that former science mission directorate associate administrator Alan Stern raised publicly not so long ago and is NASA's toughest challenge, halting those spiralling costs on so many programmes
This is not going to be some great investigation of NASA's cost bases or accounting system rather its a story about a flaw, a human flaw, that in its own way has also brought down the world financial system
Bit of a grand statement?
The new NASA administrator might want to consider this flaw because while Stern calls it a growing cancer it has in fact been within the organsiation for many, many years. People who have spent these many years in the space programme and seen the costs rise and programmes die the answer, so I am told, is much close to home
(this is the point where some of you can say, yeah, yeah, we knew all this, what's new?)
And like the world's banking system it is the way incentives are corrupting the process. Stern is kind, he talks about scientists and engineers and managers not managing to effectively budget for the missions' specifications. But the reality behind why he felt shunned and neutered is because those expanding budgets also expand salaries, for both civil servant and mirror image contractor alike
This is the harsh reality that space programme veterans have outlined to me. Both NASA and contractor employees, managers and technical folks alike, can benefit from cost overruns because salaries are often linked to the size of the budget; just as empire building has been a facet of corporate life because for decades salary levels were based on staff numbers under a managers control
And today deceit and unmanageable risks are indulged in to inflate in the short term share prices to ensure the chief executives of private industry, both financial and commercial, get their salary multiplying bonus'
So the next NASA administrator doesn't have to make accounting reform his or her main goal, they don't have to immediately end senior NASA budget holders being allowed to get juice industry jobs (and come back into the agency when it suits their industrial employers); they don't have to make more rigorous technical cost estimation a priority or beef up the Congressional liaison team to argue for more cash (but doing all this would be good)
Instead he or she should simply (easier said I admit) reform the salaries of NASA staff to encourage that more rigorous technical cost estimation, to ensure budgets are met
And the contractors should be told bluntly that they have to do the same
Flame away ;-)