Project Management Institute

Out of sight


Budget cuts and culture clashes may keep scientists from new solar discoveries.

IT SOUNDS LIKE SCIENCE FICTION: a project to convert a Boeing 747 SP into a Large Airborne Telescope that astronomers will use for an enhanced view of infrared radiation from outer space.

Devised in the mid-1970s, initiated about a decade later and originally scheduled for completion in 2002, Project SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is meant to give scientists access to the infrared light caused by astronomical events such as the birth of young stars in the early universe and the formation of planets from dust around stars. This light, instrumental to finding information about fundamental cosmic processes and detecting extra-solar planets, is invisible from ground-based telescopes. Using the revamped Boeing could change everything.

Flying at altitudes of approximately 41,000 feet (12,500 meters), SOFIA's sensors will observe the sky at wavelengths between 0.35 and 655 μm, providing an undisturbed view from a position on top of 99 percent of the water vapor that blocks views via traditional telescopes.

Project SOFIA is a joint effort sponsored by the U.S. space agency NASA, which is picking up 80 percent of the costs, and Germany's DLR, which took on the remaining 20 percent. Private companies from both countries are contributing assembled components as well as ongoing service.

An important milestone was achieved in September 2002 when the almost nine-foot (2.7 m) telescope system was delivered from Germany to the assembly site in Waco, Texas, USA. According to earlier plans, SOFIA should have been operational by that time, but budget cuts on both sides of the Atlantic and organizational challenges caused by a large number of diverse stakeholders made repeated rescheduling necessary, says Oliver F. Lehmann, PMP, vice president of professional development for PMI's Troubled Projects Special Interest Group. In 2002, the published date for the start of service was October 2004; now it will not be achieved before fall 2006.

“Of course, project SOFIA is a major technical challenge to the project teams,” Mr. Lehmann says, “but what obviously has been underrated were problems on the interpersonal and organizational levels. There has been a disconnect between different groups of Americans and German agencies and private investors.” The divide, according to a NASA report, is sparked by the U.S. agency's concern that best practices for training and internal operations are not being followed.



The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel 1999 annual report called the project “a virtual hodgepodge of overlapping functions and responsibilities.” It went on to say that if these problems were not fixed the project was not only liable “to become a fait accompli, but also flight system updates desirable for reducing workload and risk could well be overlooked.” The panel warned flight management, navigation and safety systems could be jeopardized.

A team led by Aaron J. Shenhar from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., USA, concludes that the project “requires cultural integration for seamless coordination and communication. Seeing the project as a system project, rather than assembly, would enhance focus on integration and additional communication efforts.”

“Many project managers still perceive themselves as technical experts and concentrate on the engineering dimension of a project,” Mr. Lehmann says. “But the more heterogeneous their project teams are, the more they have to deal with managing disputes and organizational complexity. Then, project managers have to take over the leader's role as well.”

If you know of a troubled project in which a project manager could have (or did) save the day, share your lessons learned. Contact [email protected].

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