NASA Suffers From “Utterly Dysfunctional Funding and Management System”


Source of book image:

(p. A13) The space shuttle Discovery arrived safely home over the weekend, and I suppose we are all rather relieved – that is, those of us who were aware that the shuttle had blasted off a couple of weeks ago on yet another mission. Space exploration is attracting a lot of excitement these days, but the excitement seems to have less to do with the shuttle and more to do with private space ventures, like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic or Robert Bigelow’s plans for space hotels or Space Adventures Ltd., whose latest customer for a private space trip is Google co-founder Sergey Brin. He bought a ticket only last week.

Robert Zimmerman’s “The Universe in the Mirror” serves to remind us that NASA, too, can do exciting things in space. Yet the career of the Hubble Space Telescope has been both triumphant and troubled, bringing into focus the strengths and the weaknesses of doing things the NASA way.
. . .
In addition to telling a thrilling tale, Mr. Zimmerman provides a number of lessons. One, he says, is the importance of having human beings in space: Had Hubble not been designed for servicing by astronauts, it would have been an epic failure and a disaster for a generation of astronomers and astrophysicists. Though robots have their uses, he notes, “humans can fix things, something no unmanned probe can do.” . . .
But the biggest lesson of “The Universe in a Mirror” comes from the utterly dysfunctional funding and management system that Mr. Zimmerman portrays. Hubble was a triumph, but a system that requires people to sacrifice careers and personal lives, and to engage in “courageous and illegal” acts, in order to see it succeed is a system that is badly in need of repair. Alas, fixing Hubble turned out to be easier than fixing the system that lay behind its problems.

For the full review, see:

GLENN HARLAN REYNOLDS. “Bookshelf; We Can See Clearly Now.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., June 16, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The revised edition of the book under review (including an afterword added by the author) is:
Zimmerman, Robert. The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It. revised pb ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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