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Posted: February 01, 2011

Guest Column: Space business still learning to walk

Todd Neff

In 1948, a small University of Colorado team told Air Force scientists that for $64,000 they could build path-breaking space hardware to observe the sun from the nose of a rocket. And build it they did, though they came in roughly 10 times over budget and years behind schedule.

In 1959, some of those same CU students, then working for what is now known as Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, told NASA they could build the first sun-observing satellites - three of them - for about $850,000. They built one, and delivered it more than a year late and for about triple that amount.

The Air Force and NASA were OK with these overruns. As Nancy Grace Roman, who served as NASA's astronomy chief in the early 1960s, told me, "We recognized that we were doing something new, and we had to learn how to do it. You could try things, and if they didn't work, you could try something else. I have in the past compared the beginning of the space program to a baby learning to walk. It falls down occasionally."

Some 40 years later, in 1998, Ball Aerospace proposed to NASA a $233 million spacecraft - actually, two spacecraft - to smash into the comet Tempel 1 and observe what pristine solar-system building blocks their projectile unearthed. Deep Impact met its mark on July 4, 2005. The mission launched a year later than planned and cost a reported $333 million, which didn't include the thousands of hours engineers toiled off the clock.

Deep Impact became the first spacecraft to touch a comet more than 43 years after the Orbiting Solar Observatory became the first to fix its gaze on the sun from Earth's orbit. The space program, far from a baby, had grown middle-aged. But the problems of budget and schedule persisted - and persist still.

Not to single out Ball Aerospace - I just happen to know Ball best, having written a book about the company. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. Curiosity), a rolling chemistry lab for the Red Planet, was initially slated to cost $1.63 billlion. It will cost perhaps $2.3 billion when it launches later this year, two years behind schedule. The James Webb Space Telescope, for which Northrop Grumman is prime contractor (Ball is working on the mirror array), will launch at least four years late and cost more than three times the $2 billion estimated in 2002.

In the business of space, the passage of time and accumulation of experience seems not to pay dividends in predictability. The experience curve somehow fails to descend. Costs spiral. Schedules spill over. Why?

The space-engineering bar inexorably rises. The digital revolution transformed spacecraft into soaring computers, exponentially increasing their capabilities - and complexity. Every scientific spacecraft is looking for something its predecessors failed to capture (The same holds true for many military spacecraft). It takes new technologies to plumb the unknown, or at the very least new combinations of proven technologies.

And let's face it: We all estimate poorly. Jerry Chodil, the Ball Aerospace vice president who told NASA that Ball could do Deep Impact, described it to me like this: "I owned five acres out in Lafayette some years ago. I went to put up some fencing. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, it took me three times longer than I estimated."

There are other factors. People in the space business tend to be optimistic about what they can accomplish. Proposal teams want to look like bargains to selection officials. And, as retired Ball engineer Tim Ostwald told me, "People don't want to hear the truth. Especially managers and politicians do not want to hear the truth."

Perhaps some space-engineering-management revolution will prove me wrong. But I'll bet that in 50 years the American space enterprise, while doing incredible things, will still be delivering late and over budget. On the final frontier, humans will always be learning to walk.
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