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From New Scientist Print Edition. January 8, 2005 http://www.newscientist.com/channel/space/mg18524812.600*
James Oberg is a space commentator and former space shuttle engineer

THE year 2005 is set to be one of the toughest for the US space agency NASA. It must deliver on its promise to get the space shuttle fleet back into the air by the middle of the year. With its international partners, it must find a way to keep the International Space Station functioning with a skeleton crew. And it needs a new leader, following the surprise resignation in December of its chief, Sean O'Keefe. Whoever is chosen will be taking on a tough job. As well as the immediate challenges, he or she must focus NASA's sights on longer-term goals. The most notable of these is the implementation of President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, his plan to send people to the moon and beyond. To achieve this, NASA will need more than just smart and dedicated people, technological know-how and adequate funding. The key will be the ability to develop sensible long-range plans and the engineering acumen to implement them. The president's goals, outlined a year ago, are generally regarded as sensible and realistic. But they signal the need for big changes at NASA. It will have to retire the space shuttle in 2010, once the International Space Station is completed, and design and build a replacement capable of taking humans further from Earth. Most significantly, developing a human flight programme to other planets will require fundamental changes in the way NASA is organised. Years ago, NASA's pride in its achievements began a fatal slide into an arrogance that has made it dangerously insular. NASA has become an organisation that appears unwilling to look beyond itself for help. That is why it is once again struggling to fix the dysfunctional safety culture that led to the deaths of the Columbia astronauts two years ago and to numerous other failures. Without such a fix, travelling to the moon might not be possible at all. After the space shuttle Columbia was lost, NASA officials discovered independent assessments of its safety culture that dated from the period after the Challenger shuttle accident in 1986. To their surprise, they found few at NASA who could recall reading any of them. In January 2004, Howard McCurdy, professor of public administration at the American University in Washington DC, told the US Senate just how bad he believed things had become. McCurdy is well placed to assess NASA's capabilities, as he has been chronicling the agency's history for the past two decades. His assessment of NASA's ability to carry out Bush's initiative was blunt: "The mission is not possible with the NASA that exists today." So how should NASA change to fix these problems? According to McCurdy, it needs a transformation no less radical than the one it underwent in the late 1950s when it took over the space programme from its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. It quadrupled in size, as it brought in experienced engineers and managers from all branches of government, industry and academia in the US, and from key foreign institutions. Working together, these people learned the hard way how to avoid mistakes by designing, building and testing spacecraft and rockets in dozens of projects. And then rebuilding them when things weren't right. It wasn't diplomas or intelligence test scores or secret formulas that brought these engineers success. It was the way they learned to make hard choices between alternative avenues of research, to separate significant clues from background noise, to spot poorly thought-out proposals, and to recognise nuggets of insight and innovation. By the time the Apollo team came together in the early 1960s, they had built up an unprecedented body of engineering experience. By contrast, NASA already has in place the majority of the team that will design and build the next missions to the moon. Most of them have spent their careers on only one or two types of space vehicle, and usually these vehicles were already flying by the time they encountered them. Today's space workers are probably better educated and possibly demonstrably smarter than the Apollo team of the 60s. What they don't have is good old-fashioned engineering experience. What NASA needs now is creative solutions to many complex problems, and these solutions will have to come from outside institutions that have more freedom to think creatively than those steeped in NASA's way of doing things. The big challenge facing NASA's new leader, therefore, is to bring in new blood, even if it means giving some workers their marching orders. Quadrupling in size is not an option this time. The new leadership must learn to train this workforce in a way that develops sound engineering judgement, through teaching if possible and through experience when necessary. The timetable to achieve the new, grand space vision must build in room for the team to learn and be able to tolerate the mistakes that the learning process entails. To do otherwise would be the ultimate betrayal of the lessons of the Apollo programme.


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