Are space missions safer if conducted by a single government agency?

Earth and space science missions conducted by federal agencies in collaboration result in additional complexity and cost and increased risks, according to a new report.

Earth and space science missions conducted by multiple federal agencies in collaboration result in additional complexity and cost and increased risks, according to a new report.

According to a new report from the National Research Council, divided responsibilities and accountability lead to holes in the plan, administrative redundancies and delays -- and federal agencies should avoid partnering on missions without a compelling reason to do so.

A committee examined case studies from previous domestic and international missions, took briefings from several agencies, and drew upon committee members' own experiences to reach conclusions.

The committee was chaired by D. James Baker, director of the global carbon measurement program at the William J. Clinton Foundation, and Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Its membership includes representation from NASA; Johns Hopkins University; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; University of Maryland; Orbital Sciences Corp.; George Mason University; University of California, Berkeley; the Climate Response Fund; George Washington University; Colorado State University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; University of California, Santa Barbara and Lockheed Martin.

The committee's membership exposes one issue with this study: NASA is a part of it. (The agency also funded the study.) NASA has long complained about the bureaucratic red tape stemming from its partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support climate research.

Nevertheless, the question remains a valid one for any business: does collaboration help or hurt a major project?

A few more findings from the study:

  • An agency will often enter into a partnership because its individual share of the mission is made more affordable.
  • Risks involved in meeting schedules and performance objectives are typically underestimated.
  • International collaboration suffers from the same increase in cost and complexity, but can decrease U.S. costs because foreign governments absorb some expenses.
  • To avoid these potholes, much upfront planning -- especially defining roles and responsibilities -- is necessary.

One alternative to full collaboration (and potential project management failure) is a client approach, where one agency buys specific services from others or simply serves as the main node for data coordination.

The committee suggests that the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget or Congress should provide specific incentives and support -- from funding to fast-tracking paperwork -- to encourage interagency research collaboration, leaving day-to-day oversight to another body more suited to the task.

The committee also warns against partnerships for the sake of partnership, recommending to restrict them only when pursuing scientific value that cannot be achieved by a single agency.

Innovation, reconsidered: who should (and shouldn't) be responsible for space missions?

Photo: NASA

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