Lost in Space

The Space Station's woes show what's wrong with NASA and hints at how to put it right

Photo: Apogee Books

ISScapades: The Crippling of America’s Space Program
By Donald A. Beattie; Apogee Books, Burlington, Ont., Canada; 226 pp., US $23.95; ISBN-10: 1894959590

Reviewed by James Oberg

You can learn a lot from this study of the International Space Station, a troubled attempt to coordinate NASA and its Soviet and later Russian counter­part. Above all, you learn how not to manage a major technological project.

Donald A. Beattie, a retired senior manager at NASA, was in its inner sanctum during the crucial period, from 1982 to 1998, when the station was conceived and born. The reports, memos, transcripts, budgets, and memoirs that he gathers here, most of them never published before, chronicle the surges, droughts, and dams that characterized the funding of the project.

”In the final analysis,” Beattie writes, ”funding, or the lack thereof, shaped the program as much or more than any other events.” The space station, he told me, was cursed from the start by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

His central theme is NASA’s failure to learn from its history, much less that of other space programs. That, he says, is why it made so many errors of judgment.

Beattie also delves into the management of technological risk and crew safety. He details the 1997 report by NASA Inspector General Roberta Gross indicting the agency for ignoring the problems it had in working with the Russians and for yielding to political pressure. Workers who did not toe the line were forced out, even Gene Kranz, the heroic NASA flight director portrayed by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13. It came as no surprise—except to managers who had not wanted to know the risks—when Mir had a series of near-fatal disasters. NASA officials ignored even those red flags and adopted a culture of willful carelessness that led logically to the loss of the Columbia space shuttle with all its crew.

Beattie provides plenty of insightful descriptions of leading managers, few of them complimentary. He calls Daniel Saul Goldin, the longest-serving NASA administrator in history, ”a disaster” for bullying subordinates, fawning over politicians, subverting the technical review boards that he chaired by dictating off-the-cuff solutions to problems, and putting astronauts into top management slots for which they had no background or training. If Goldin hoped that their yearning for a future space assignment would make them totally compliant with his decisions, he was right. The astronauts did as they were told.

Hindsight, of course, is easy. Still, Beattie offers more than a mere catalog of woe—he offers a prescription for doing better. His recommendations have credibility, both from the many irrefutable details he provides and from the passion for space exploration that he evinces. He remains dedicated to the U.S. space program as a major national activity.

The book is a tough slog, though. Even the margins are too narrow for comfortable eyeballing. But space flight is not for wimps or lazy thinkers. Would-be space managers should have to read and digest this book to prove that they, like the astronauts, have the ”right stuff.” n

About the Author

JAMES OBERG worked for NASA for 22 years. He writes on space exploration from his home in Galveston County, Texas.

Advertisement
Advertisement