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Faster, Cheaper, and More ... Metric?

measuring up to imperial standards
by Michael Turner
Tokyo - Aug 21, 2003
In his SpaceDaily op-ed "Columbia: The Legacy Of Better, Faster, Cheaper", NASA veteran Raymond Anderson suggests that a policy of "Faster, Better, Cheaper" (FBC) was at the root of the Columbia disaster. At first I thought he must have gotten his slogans mixed up somewhere -- surely, FBC was only for the unmanned missions? It turns out I'm behind the times, and haven't kept up with the confusion. FBC originally meant something. Now, it means everything , and consequently, nothing.

Spend any amount of time in the real world of work, and you'll slave under martinets who insist that you work faster, for less money per hour, while producing higher quality results. A professional can only sigh, and hope not to be put out on the street for asking "which two would you pick, if you could only have two?"

The FBC tag line originally described a strategic emphasis for the unmanned space program. And even in this formulation, NASA accepted increased mission risks as inevitable, even if they weren't as forthcoming about those risks as they could have been. The rationale was sound enough: What you lose in mission failures, you make up in mission volume. More net mission success means more scientific data.

FBC was a good idea. Certainly, it was mismarketed. (Maybe they should have had Rick Fleeter writing their press releases.) And certainly, there were flaws in execution. But basically, it was and is a good idea, considered apart from the issues raised by Columbia. In any case, the Shuttle program has always been a story of overpromising and underdelivering, starting as far back as the compromised initial design. It has also been a story of sweeping ominous quality issues under the rug. Faster-Better-Cheaper held the promise of being spared this ignominy, until it got spread over everything NASA was doing.

FBC seemed to be doing well for a while, particularly with the success of the Pathfinder probe , which returned a wealth of scientific data at a fraction of the cost of previous Mars missions.

The nostrum of "Faster, Cheaper, Better" met its Waterloo, however, with the back-to-back loss of two Mars probes in late 1999. As one wag at The Economist neatly summarized it in the wake the disappearance of the Polar Lander: "Faster, Cheaper ... Splat."

The previous probe, Climate Orbiter, had been lost because of a navigation error owing to a confusion of Imperial units and metric units. This second mishap, following hot on the heels of the first, had all the makings of a windfall for the cheap-shot T-shirt industry: "Earth to NASA ... Faster: check. Cheaper: check. Better? Not furlong!" And NASA had done itself no favors by bragging they'd gotten "two for the price of one" before the probes had even reached the Red Planet.

One wonders if NASA might have done better from a PR point of view with a little less chutzpah and a little more self-deprecating humor. In short, why hadn't they cheerily, and publicly, faced up to these risks? As one radical roboticist suggested (perhaps even indirectly inspiring a useful slogan, until more earnest minds mangled it), highly productive autonomous space systems should go the route of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

Well, all right, maybe that tag line was always nonstarter. But with some slogan like it, the public would at least have been prepared for the truth. When you promise "better" you have to remember what all good salesmen know: quality is what the customer says it is. The customer -- i.e., the taxpayer -- should at least have been better educated about what NASA originally meant by "better", before any semantic drift and mission creep could take hold. That they were not thus educated is clearly NASA's fault. That NASA applied the formula where they shouldn't have ... well, that's definitely NASA's fault.

There's nothing wrong with a strategy of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control so long as nobody dies pointlessly. In the film of the same name, a reviewer described the portrait of Rodney Brooks' robotics experiments as part of a "darkly funny contemplation of the Sisyphus-like nature of human striving." By subordinating FBC to an all-encompassing managerial mandate at NASA, including the manned program, we didn't even get the "funny" part -- just something dark and Sisyphean, after a lot of striving.

In the case of the failed Mars missions, critics were very quick to point the finger at the budgeting for these missions. To paraphrase Albert Einstein (or perhaps Yogi Berra; it depends on who you ask) things should be made as cheap as possible, but not cheaper. Polar Lander and Climate Orbiter cost dramatically less than Pathfinder -- some 40% less --and Pathfinder was already a very cost-reduced mission by NASA standards. John Pike at FAS went so far as to say that these probes were launched "on the off-chance that they would work."

Maybe $330 million for two probes was simply not enough? John Pike's gibe may have been a blow too low, but Bruce Moomaw made a credible case for dollar-starvation, while suggesting the notion still has legs, especially if you substitute "smaller" for "better."

This year, however, British probe designers put together Beagle 2 for something in the neighborhood of $60 million, with a total mission cost of about $165 million. Beagle has had its problems, and may yet fail. However, you could launch half a dozen Mars missions at this price and do pretty well by planetary science cost standards even with double the historical failure rate.

Aside from the reference to the Beagle of Darwin fame, the name itself is inspired -- beagles are not thoroughbred racehounds. They are all floppy ears and drooling tongues. Out of Control has never looked so cute. Score one for British space program marketing. The Economist's "Splat" article ruefully observed that "NASA's stated aim of reducing the average cost per mission to as little as $50m in 2004 now looks foolhardy." Perhaps so, but FBC seems to be alive, even in 2003, and in the home country of The Economist.

Still, we can't very well start touting the advantages of Out of Control per se. Especially when it's so ...well, out of control! The public may be accepting of risk, but not of stupidity. What high school physics or chemistry instructor doesn't itch to rap students' knuckles with a ruler when they neglect to check whether units agree in calculations? It's the most basic scientific computation technique of all: get your units right. It was the first line of defense in the slide-rule days, and it should be the first one now, before the supercomputer has even warmed up. But for just such a nail, Climate Orbiter was lost.

Perhaps the slogan needs a retread that speaks to quality issues more directly, without making them the be-all and end-all. I suggest: "Faster, Cheaper, and More Metric." This would have saved at least one of those American Mars probes.

Metric? Howls of outrage -- some from reasoning minds, some not -- are likely to ensue. Let's assume that the knee-jerk anti-metric crowd already overlaps 90% with the irrationally-anti-space (or even the anti-everything) crowds. You people: stop reading. I'm not talking to you. Goodbye. I mean it.

Are they gone? Good.

Now that it's a little quieter, I admit: there is actually a good reason not to convert the U.S. space program wholesale to the metric system. There is a huge base of what software professionals call "legacy code" that uses Imperial units. "Legacy" has certain connotations for software practitioners: "old," "obsolescent," "unwieldy," "persnickety", "hard to work with" are among them. The Y2K problem was a big deal in part because of the grain of truth to these characterizations.

For a business app programmer, "legacy" is almost synonymous with COBOL. In scientific and engineering software, the legacy is all that FORTRAN. FORTRAN is Not Cute. Say "FORTRAN legacy code" to your average freshly-degreed computer science major and the job interview is over.

However, a very sensible translation of the term "legacy code" is: "stuff that works." There are huge FORTRAN programs of great vintage in the aerospace industry. FORTRAN programmers may be a dying breed, but the extinction will be long in coming provided that these old numerical codes still continue to produce reliable answers in stress-and-strain analysis, computational fluid dynamics, and the chemistry of combustion. An ever-greying army of programmers may be supporting this technology, but they will need to be replaced as they retire. Their proteges will be speaking FORTRAN -- and to a great extent, in Imperial units.

U. S. aerospace legacy code is Stuff That Works, and Stuff That Matters. The sun hasn't set on Imperial weights and measures. It won't for a while. This fact must be squarely faced.

Still, there may be a way to start going metric in a way that doesn't break Stuff That Works in the process of fixing this overall problem.

Back in the early 60s, there was a programming language called DYNAMO, used for system simulation. It was very powerful, being was used by Jay Forrester at one point, to tell us how the entire world was going to hell in a handbasket.

The predictions made with it (the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth were the products of a time of environmental questioning, about whether humanity had a long term future. These questions inspired Gerard O'Neill to ask of his engineering students, "Is the surface of a planet the right place for an expanding industrial civilization?" . And from his students' answer came the first popular space settlement movement: the L5 Society.

Oh, how long ago it seems. The Shuttle never got down to $20/lb. Then again, the world didn't come to an end either. DYNAMO wasn't good with The Law of Unintended Consequences, and for all its power, couldn't predict new technologies.

DYNAMO was in fact a stunningly ugly language and has died a richly deserved death. But it had one feature I found very charming: numbers could be given unit types. Try to assign a certain number of pounds to a variable that was declared to be a length in feet, or a certain number of seconds to a variable that was declared to be a weight in tons, and DYNAMO asked you to please start making sense.

If you wrote a formula, you had to use the right units. But if you did that, you got an answer in the right units as a result. I thought this idea was Very Cool, even if it didn't make much of an impression on any the girls I dated in high school.

I saw this idea (that programming languages should help you check your units) surface again courtesy of Paul Hilfinger in the early 1980s, when various draft proposals for a DoD language, Ada, were being circulated. While Ada never made it in the mainstream, losing out to C and C++, Ada still survives in some aerospace applications.

Hilfinger's insight was in showing how, with small modifications to the language spec, Ada could be just as strict about units as your high school chemistry teacher. This was important: the motivation behind Ada was to support systems requiring mind-boggling reliability, such as flight avionics, where appropriately interpreting a number of centimeters as a number of inches could mean the difference between a smooth carrier landing and a fighter jet ditching in the sea.

Hilfinger's units-checking proposal hit some roadblocks. In later correspondence with me, however, he pointed out that the same thing could be done in C++, "in the obvious way." (A computer scientist's sense of the word "obvious", of course -- I somehow imagine he and I shared the problem of not being the most scintillating guy a girl could date.)

I'm sorry to report that the idea of units-checked calculations in programming languages seems to have gone underground again. I'm also sorry to say that most programmers of my acquaintance have regarded the idea as cute at best, and more often repugnant. And I still don't understand how a good idea from the early 60s could take so long to catch on, given all the trouble it would have saved in the meantime.

Still, even with widespread adoption of units-checked programming, rewriting all needed FORTRAN code as C++ is a probably non-starter, and NASA clearly recognizes the depth of the problem . There's too much of the old code, for one thing.

For another, the code might run much slower -- FORTRAN compilers have been tuned to generate fast code for any number of bizarre supercomputer architectures. And the answers that come back might be dangerously different -- the arcane foibles of arithmetic and numerical analysis virtually guarantee that something will break. I'm sure guys who wrote this stuff married their high school sweethearts, or whoever Mom thought would be right, just to get that question out of the way -- they already knew how they'd be spending their nights and weekends.

However, we don't have to close the issue here All this wonderful old FORTRAN code ("wonderful" in the most facetious possible sense) is invoked through interfaces that form a tiny fraction of the bulk. If "wrappers" in C++ (or perhaps in Hilfinger's Java dialect, Titanium ) were employed at these interfaces, using a units-based system, the correct unit conversions could be done automatically.

All new code calling the old codes would be relatively safe in terms of units. Under an only mildly fascist code-review system, all new code would use any dimensioned number only be declaring its dimension, be it pounds, newtons, slugs, meters, cubits, whatever. And that new code, under the right Strutting Code Tyrants, could move toward using metric only in the new layers of any system declared obsolescent, as a matter of NASA policy. I gleefully envision summer interns shackled overnight to old corroded rocketry in Houston rainstorms for daring to transgress.

I think this is the best medium-term compromise. It wouldn't cost much more than current software practices. Old code could be much more gracefully replaced. Gradual metricization and use of more modern programming languages would help younger engineers start careers in NASA and its contractors. (This is important, in view of Sean O'Keefe's comment that "we have three times as many personnel over 60 years of age as under 30 years of age." ).

As long as we're talking about new blood, how about staff retention? An automated layer of checking in the programming tools themselves might help do away with certain bureaucratic snafus, and the browbeatings of the kind that Laura Sachi so heartbreakingly illustrated in her story of the Polar Lander team.

Let's save the draconian punishments for those who have broken rules that actually make sense. No technology can cure a dysfunctional organization, but certain technical fixes might go some ways toward breaking the current "just add money" mindset about all of NASA's problems. And getting U.S. aerospace going metric might breathe new life into that old mission: getting America more world-standard in its engineering practices.

But best of all, a more metric NASA would reduce the chance of blowing tens of millions of dollars on another Mars-splat (or, if they get really ambitious, on a Europa-splat.) After all, 28.35 grams of prevention is worth a pound of cure, every time.

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