Schedule pressure

I was asked in a press conference once if ‘schedule pressure’ had affected my decision for a launch. I wanted to throw the reporter out of the room, but I liked my job. Schedule pressure affecting a decision? Instead of a tirade, it was clear the reporter needed a little refresher in the basics of Project Management 101. Here it is:

Work scope. Budget. Schedule. Magic, huh?

Numerous times in the Shuttle program we were accused of letting the schedule affect some decision made. News flash—of course it did! What the reporter was really asking was is if the schedule made me make an unsafe decision. If he had actually asked me that way, then I would have thrown him out.

My job, and indeed the jobs of ALL the great people working so hard to put our astronauts into orbit, was to “get it done, safely.” No exceptions, no excuses for anything less. I found that the suggestion that it was otherwise to be appalling and personally offensive. But we heard it from time to time, and not just from the press. Indeed, to their defense, they had to ask it. Doesn’t make it any more friendly, but it was their job to push for answers. I much preferred the phrase ‘schedule awareness’, and that was how I answered the question. Schedules were just as real as money and scope. But none of the three trumped safety.

Of course we got the “how much did it cost?” question, and much more frequently than the safety question, fortunately. I always liked the cost question because that never drove my decisions, much to the dismay of our program office. My own view was that we had enough money to get the work done to the agreed upon schedule, and a little more. After all, the vast majority of our costs at KSC were labor, so we met the schedule based on the size of the workforce driven by allotted budget. Magic again. More money would have permitted more people working more shifts no doubt, but absent that, we got by with what we had.

Work scope was driven by essentially three factors. There were the normal systems tests, checkouts, maintenance, etc., that were required just to maintain a healthy, functioning program. There was scope, driven by failures and therefore some needed repair or replacement. And then there were system upgrades over the life of the program to modernize and improve safety margins. These could range from relatively minor enhancements, such as upgrades to the slidewire emergency egress system, to major flight hardware improvements, such as upgrades to the Space Shuttle Main Engines aimed at reducing the chances of a shutdown during ascent.

It was during these debates when scope growth was weighed against cost and schedule. And—virtually every upgrade decision made was based on an improvement to some safety margin, or it wouldn’t have made it to the table for discussion in the first place. Some ‘operability’ upgrades were accepted, but I would argue that these had their roots in improving safety by allowing better and/or easier user-to-system interaction.

Project Management 101. Simple. But in manned spaceflight, Safety was the overarching requirement—inescapable and thoroughly embraced. It wasn’t ‘the fourth factor’—it was the paramount factor, not often taught in the typical PM 101 course.

sts133-s-065
Mike Leinbach gives the Go for launch of Discovery  on mission STS-133, February 24, 2011 (NASA photo STS133-S-065)

Author: Mike Leinbach

Mike was the final Space Shuttle Launch Director at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. He led the launch team for all Shuttle missions from August 2000 to the end of the program in 2011, giving the final "go" for every launch.

3 thoughts on “Schedule pressure”

  1. Mike, during a recent LCC tour I did with you in September (I was the big guy who had to leave for the Osiris-REx launch) you talked a lot about launch fever and schedule pressure.

    My question is, do you feel that there is a potential risk with the new launch companies/options currently working towards human launch capabilities in schedule pressure / launch fever? Do you feel enough is being done to mitigate some of these issues?

    I know from discussion with you, I believe your stance was to keep the vehicle on the ground until you were 120% sure that you could safely launch your friends and colleagues into orbit, so I’m particularly interested in knowing how you feel about the future launch capabilities mitigating this risk.

    PS, thank you for the awesome tour – it was an absolute pleasure to meet and spend a few hours with you talking about your experiences in the Shuttle Program.

    All the best,

    Mike McGill

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    1. Hi Mike, I remember you and hope you enjoyed the launch in September! To answer, launch fever is a real phenomenon so I believe it must happen in any program. I’ve personally witnessed it in more than just Shuttle, by the way. Guarding against it is the trick as you must first recognize it, then react. Recognition gets better as experience grows. This is also a fact so newer providers need to pay special attention to it. Reacting to it can involve very unpopular decisions. These too get easier with experience. All that said, I’m not ‘in the know’ what all companies are doing about it so I really can’t comment globally beyond the above. I’d love to talk with them about it, though. Lives can depend on avoiding it. Thanks for asking.

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