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DEFERRED MAINTENANCE: From the sounds of it, Kennedy Space Center is starting to resemble downtown Detroit in the mid 80’s.

This doesn’t sound good at all. But it’s entirely predictable. When your funding comes from the federal budget rather than investors, there is less incentive to maintain your capital — just use it until it wears out, patch it up to keep it going, and beg for money to replace the old equipment with something bright and shiny new. It’s not like you ever have to recoup the investment or anything. Better to throw a hundred million a year into pork programs and set-asides instead of preventative maintenance and upgrades, and then cry for emergency funding when everything falls to pieces.

From what I can glean from the article and personal knowledge, the “priority” scheme described in the article sounds an awful lot like an “expediting” arrangement — a system in which tasks are continually reprioritized based on urgency, rather than following an orderly, planned schedule. It doesn’t take much for such systems to become corrupted — crisis becomes the norm, with every task being inflated to a “top priority” in order to bump it to the head of the queue and maybe get it addressed. Mundane, routine “broken windows” type tasks then don’t get addressed, as the people involved know that such matters will never be assigned a high enough priority for action to be taken…”Why bother?” becomes the ingrained response to those small issues, until they eventually snowball into an attention-getting crisis.

You can bet that the bulk of the maintenance backlog at KSC started out this way, as little problems. The little drip in the roof that could have been patched before it turned into a torrent that caused structural damage. The spot of peeling paint that grew into a serious corrosion issue because no one came to touch it up. The ten-thousand-dollar specialty tools that sit unused because a five-dollar consumable part is out of stock and the order for more doesn’t have a high enough priority. It isn’t just big, headline-grabbing breakdowns like cracked flowliners or vent lines or crawler bearings, it’s the simple housekeeping stuff that isn’t getting addressed.

(In fairness, the crawlers have probably more than recouped their initial investment, in the sense that they have lasted many times longer and been used many more times than they were in the program for which they were built. Which just proves the point — built correctly, and properly maintained, your infrastructure can last a long, long time. I have serious trouble believing that, if the facilities had been properly managed through careful use of the funds already available over the years, the maintenance problem would be as great as it is.)

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