Since Lex Asked …

I’ve already posted this over on Arcturus, but Lex asked that I share it here also. I’m noticing several interesting lessons in my favorite topics — project management (especially risk management) and public perception of large scientific endeavors.

As Randall Parker himself once noted in an e-mail to me, a Mars mission need not, indeed probably should not, consist of one spacecraft using one type of propulsion for interplanetary transfer: send the hardware and consumables on ahead by some relatively conventional means, following a Hohmann transfer ellipse (long; do a search on “Hohmann”), whose typical time-of-flight is 8˝ months (calculation). Then use your exotic propulsion system — magnetic, nuclear, whatever — to get the people there fast, in a much smaller spacecraft, arriving at the same time; in project planning, we call this a “finish-to-finish dependency.”
This manages several risks. By category, as found in § of the PMBOK (2000 edition), they are:

  • Technical/quality/performance – Much lower for the “slow boat” carrying the habitat and supplies, due to its use of more familiar technologies. For the crew module, managed by virtue of needing to remain operational for only a fraction of the time a more conventional spacecraft would require. Technically, the propulsion method in question may be regarded as an “active” version of Solar Windsurfing, and is potentially fantastically efficient by comparison with any chemical or even nuclear rocket.
  • Organizational – Possibly mitigated by dividing the project between a “slow boat” and a crew module.
    The great lesson of the CAIB Report, however, was that NASA’s organizational risks have not been well-managed historically. I believe that these have largely resulted from conflicting requirements imposed by Congress, which in turn derive from American political culture as a whole. Not an easy thing to fix; but Strauss and Howe offer hope in the form of a more effective alignment of generational talents, to emerge over the next couple of decades. I hasten to add that my preferred solution, like that of most of my readers, would be a mechanism that avoids public funding and its attendant political wrangling as much as humanly possible. This in turn presumes adequate economic incentive to put people on Mars, though I note that such an incentive could consist of someone with a great deal of money simply wanting to do it. Mars has had a powerful hold on the public imagination at least since the opposition of 1877.
  • External – There’s nothing like space travel for external risks, though the public’s conception of these (as indicated by many of the comments to Randall’s post) is, shall we say, less than congruent with the reality. Radiation is not much of a problem, nor are meteoroids. Microgravity is a problem, and it would be far better to expose the crew to 3 months of it than 9 months.
    A significantly greater external risk is that microbial life may yet be discovered on Mars. This could put the entire planet off limits for an extended period.
  • I note that the category of project management risks itself still remains, and indeed might be an even greater concern than otherwise, as the Mars mission now becomes, in effect, two separate projects whose ultimate objectives must nonetheless be coordinated. I note that the bifurcated nature of the Chunnel project was a major factor in its high cost overruns.

My point, as usual, is: don’t confuse a proposal for, or even the existence of, an intriguing technology with the actual work of employing it effectively. Organizational and project-management risks have sunk many a project that was technically feasible.

2 thoughts on “Since Lex Asked …”

  1. Jay,

    With due respect, you’re painting an oversimple picture of the technical problems, especially regarding long term radiation exposure. Here’s a link to a nasa link-farm on some related topics: (EAS also has a great series of on-line publications relating to similar work, in particular on the coronasphere research)…

    I also think you betray a fairly common bias regarding the relationship between massive scientific undertakings and the political and financial support that makes such projects possible in the first place. A qualification of, “…as much as humanly possible.” when it comes to something like space exoploration is so huge that it ALWAYS obscures the ‘ideal’ PM strategy, and often trumps even what most scientists and engineers would consider RATIONAL! lol.

    This is especially true when the political and finanical risk is not remotely similar to the level considered acceptable by the scientific community. What seems ‘dumb’ to you or I often looks WAY different to those whose moral calculus is primarily political and modal, rather than apolitical and scientific. Those whose thinking is determined by the former aren’t inclined to care about Science in the first place, forget about something as grand as Mars. And it’s also worth remembering that the mobile vulgus will always be fickle, impatient, and short-sighted, the opposite traits of those that are required for sound scientific progress.

    So for example, it might be true that nasa hasn’t managed big projects as well as it might have in the past, and that this is due to the inter-relationship between that agency and our system as a whole, but… so what? Compared to anyone else in the Universe nasa starts looking like the belle of the ball (ever heard a Russian physicist rant about “Marxist Science”?). Nasa (and it’s primary objectives) isn’t distinct from the socio-political system it exists within, and it isn’t clear why it should be imagined with the potential to exist otherwise.

    Another point you overlook is that US military culture has at least as much if not more effect on space related research and funding than the whims of a particular Congress or President. Military thinking is Nationalist, secretive, and paranoid by definition. More importantly, the Military is overwhelmingly viewed by the Public, rightly or wrongly, as a more trust worthy institution than the Scientific establishment (or any other institution for that matter… Big business and Congress hover around a 20-30% rating, while the Military is solidly in the 70-80% range.) It’s patently naive and counter productive to imagine that they’re going to sit back and pick their noses in the Pentagon and give up control of the strategic “high ground”… not when they’ve explicitly made it clear that they consider this their top priority for the foreseeable future. Military minds might not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but do you honestly believe they’ll let go once they’ve gotten their teeth into something? If so, please explain…

    My point (as usual I suspect) is that it’s important to see the forest as a whole when considering a couple of its inhabitants/members (trees). If we’re discussing the technological problems relating to Mars, ok, but let’s differentiate between these and the general problems of organization and support, as the latter are not areas where scientists enjoy particular authority.

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