Optimism is essential to NASA’s success. It is difficult to imagine a group of pessimistic—or even realistic—people enthusiastically setting out to do something that has never been done before, like putting a human being on the moon or a driving a robot on Mars, and then actually doing it.
“You have to be optimistic to beat gravity and to do the amazing things that NASA does,” says Lori Garver, who served as the agency’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013. “On the other hand, that has caused us to overpromise and make mistakes.”
Financial overruns and schedule delays are not unusual for NASA projects. Since the agency opened in 1958, several of its most high-profile missions—the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Curiosity rover—have launched into space well beyond their budget and timeline goals. This is, in part, because of the inherent nature of space exploration: When you’re trying to do something no one else has done before, you don’t always know how much work it will take.
“It’s almost never the case that things come in ahead of schedule, and it’s not because of failure to plan,” says Mason Peck, an engineer at Cornell University who served as the NASA chief technologist from 2011 to 2013. “It’s just when you plan for that schedule, disruptions force you into the future. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
Outside government groups have spent years chastising NASA over this, arguing that the space agency could do better. In 2012, the NASA office of the inspector general published a report titled “NASA’s Challenges to Meeting Cost, Schedule, and Performance Goals.” The document was based on interviews with dozens of agency employees, including current and former administrators, the directors of various NASA facilities, and project managers. There were several major challenges, the report concluded, including an underestimation of technical complexity, funding instability, and shifting priorities from presidential administrations and Congress. And the top challenge, the report said, was NASA’s positive outlook.
“It was clear from our interviews that a culture of optimism and a can-do spirit permeate all levels of NASA, from senior management to front-line engineers,” the report said. “Although this optimistic organizational culture is essential for realizing groundbreaking scientific achievement, it can also lead to unrealistic projections about what can be achieved within approved budgets and timeframes.”
Particularly, project managers are “overly optimistic” about how much effort developing and testing new technology will take, the report said.
That’s still the case today, says Paul Martin, NASA’s inspector general, who oversees independent reviews of the agency’s programs, from Earth-observing satellites to Mars rovers. He traces the rise of this mind-set—mission success above all—to the 1960s, when the United States put a man on the moon just eight years after President John F. Kennedy called on the nation to do so. “The optimistic and focused national goals of the Apollo program, coupled with the program’s generous funding profile, set the foundation for an organizational culture that believes nothing is impossible despite significant technical hurdles and other challenges,” Martin says.