The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 40.0°F | Overcast

Reforms Put Focus on NASA's Image

By Robert S. Capers
The Hartford Courant


A five-spacewalk Hubble Space Telescope repair mission scheduled for December will be the most difficult shuttle mission ever undertaken. But observers inside and outside NASA say it will be like a warm night under the stars compared with the much more important mission of repairing the agency that produced the defective telescope in the first place.

NASA's problems have been known for years. Even agency officials acknowledge that the agency has suffered from bad management, dishonesty in stating projects' costs and underestimation of technical difficulties.

But the problems were not solved and, as a result, the agency's recent history has been marked more by disaster -- the Challenger explosion -- and disappointment -- the Hubble -- than by the triumphs that distinguished NASA's earlier history.

Although reforming NASA will be difficult, it has at least begun the process, and observers say there is more reason to be hopeful about NASA's future than there has been in years.

Among those who have noticed the changes is Frank Degnan, the assistant director of the General Accounting Office with responsibility for NASA.

"We've been beating on NASA for 20 years off and on" for not doing more complete disclosure of projects' costs, Degnan said. "They're slowly but surely moving toward a broader display of the costs of projects."

Although NASA might not have made all the changes the GAO would like, "there is a thoroughness of consideration" that GAO reports have not received previously, Degnan said. "We're getting an excellent response (in terms) of recognition of the need to do things differently."

Daniel S. Goldin, who was named administrator of NASA early in 1992, gets credit for making most of the changes in the face of continuing resistance from some in NASA, Congress and the aerospace industry.

Goldin has required independent reviews of all major programs, which resulted in the restructuring of several. Any project that starts running over budget will get additional reviews.

Rules are being changed so some of the contractors' pay will be withheld until their work is done, and the money then will be released only if the work is done well.

Goldin also is turning attention to the long-neglected aeronautics side of the agency's mission and emphasizing the important role the agency plays in developing new technologies that are commercially valuable to business and industry.

Public meetings were held all over the country to solicit the views of citizens, business leaders, scholars and others. Every NASA employee has been asked to contribute ideas about how to improve programs and the way the agency does business.

In what might eventually prove to be one of the more important moves, Goldin is introducing a new management philosophy in which low-level workers are given increased authority and responsibility. He created a high-level Office of Continuous Improvement to oversee this effort.

He has stated repeatedly that revolutionary change is needed at NASA. Work must be done "better, faster, cheaper" without compromising safety, Goldin says.

Goldin's changes are not always popular. But even those who have found them unpleasant say they are worthwhile and necessary.