Original Post Date: Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Today, change is in the air.  As I write this, Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as our new U.S. President and the space community, among others, should be braced for change.  A recent LA times article reported that of the 74 questions asked of NASA by the Obama transition team, over half were on basic spending issues, including cost overruns.

The Obama team and the NASA Administrator Michael Griffin clearly do not see eye-to-eye.  Monday, it was announced that Mr. Griffin will step down from the post.  Griffin characterizes himself as an engineer and states that NASA shouldn't be evaluated by how well it estimated the cost of projects.

"We start these things out, and we admit up front we don't completely know how to do them. That is what makes them interesting," Griffin said recently.

"If we are to judge the worth of our work by our ability to estimate, then that is a standard I am not ready to apply or to accept," Griffin said.

Others are more realistic about NASA's obligation to create credible expectations for spending taxpayer money.

"Our space program is running inefficiently, and without sufficient regard to cost performance," wrote Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator who has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Michael Griffin, the current NASA administrator.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Stern called the cost overruns a "cancer" that has cost the agency's science program about $5 billion over five years.

Agency officials said they had improved financial controls -- including forcing managers to better estimate costs.

Considering NASA's great technical achievements, one must wonder, "Is accurate estimating harder than rocket science?" 

I don't think so.  I believe the clue to accurately estimating the cost, uncertainty and risk associated with large, complex space projects can be found in a recent Defense AT&L article by Col. Brian Shimel, USAF.  Col. Shimel states,

"We cannot relieve ourselves of the need to plan for the future just because the future is uncertain. For our plans to be reasonably accurate and reliable, it is prudent we base them on rational analysis and not on wishful thinking.", and...

"We must think clearly about uncertainty and risk, and we must fight the temptation to discount those factors when communicating the real conditions of our management situation. We don't get in trouble because of risk and uncertainty. We get in trouble for not admitting to ourselves - and those who rely on us - all of the risk and uncertainty that inherently exist in everything we plan to do."

Our TruePlanning estimating and cost management software gives managers metrics and benchmarks of previous projects, and methods to realistically quantify uncertainty and risks.  TruePlanning's reports and charts expose over-optimism and show managers the real conditions of the situation.  I routinely recommend that government agencies quantify all the risks and uncertainties of each project in their portfolio and budget to the sum of the 70% confidence levels of each project, yielding 80% confidence that the projects can meet taxpayer expectations for the budget.

President Barack Obama just finished his acceptance speech.  He called upon us all to increase our service to the country.  Government managers can help by stepping up to the estimating challenge.

Accurate estimating is not rocket science.  There are sophisticated cost estimating models to accurate estimate software development costs, hardware development costs, IT project costs, and operation and support costs - we just need to be realistic, responsible and courageous about presenting the results for our analysis. Contact us and we'll help you get started today.