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COTS versus Al-Razaq, The Provider for NASA Administration and Procurement

TaggedCoding, Space, SpaceX

>>2112_02_07: Hello Huntsville. Nice to see you again.  How's this all working out for you?<<

 

If you look around the web you will surely hit the emotional debate over whether traditional NASA projects or Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) programs are the correct way to go forward with putting cargo and Humans into Space.

The two primary companies involved with COTS are Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). Of the two SpaceX is currently the favored poster child thanks to its choice of designing and building most all pieces in-house and its ownership by popular culture icon Elon Musk.  Unlike SpaceX, Orbital's philosophy is based on re-use of existing technologies, though they do say that more in-house development is coming.  Sadly for OSC, another major differentiation between the two companies is that recent tests and official launches have resulted in a dark record, while SpaceX currently enjoys a near spotless picture-perfect test flight history.

At the core of the controversy, called that of OldSpace government bureaucratic versus NewSpace lean and nimble, is of course the money spent for value returned. 

It has been said that if "Space Value" and "Space Cost" are relative terms inside the Space industry, they can only be described as insanely misunderstood by outsiders.  Poll after poll, study after study, year after year it is shown that uninterested Americans are of the perception that NASA is always ripe for budget cuts... the perception is routinely seen that most Americans believe that NASA gets a considerable amount of their tax dollars, with a range between 10 to 20% being not atypical. 

A quick looksee however continues to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that since the early 1970's the typical amount of money going directly to NASA offices and programs is right around a half of one percent of each tax dollar (dwarfed not only by Military funding but also by most purely social programs...

 

"In the 2007 budget, the funding for social programs (calculated here as the budgets for the Department of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Social Security, Agriculture, and Labor) adds up to a whopping $1.581 trillion. For every $1 the federal government spends on NASA, it spends $98 on social programs. In other words, if we cut spending on social programs by a mere one percent, we could very nearly double NASA’s budget."

- http://www.thespacereview.com/article/898/1

 

So NASA money is tight, tighter in fact than most Americans would prefer to believe. 

However, money is not the whole story.  It is also partially a National pride thing, and as an American I too can personally appreciate that longing for the bygone "American Way."  However, after well over thirty post-Apollo years of paying tens and even hundreds of billions into the prime contractors and seeing America's Space leadership drop off the map while other proud countries with mere fractions of our investment have grown to support trusted capabilities in some cases beyond our own... the American Way, apparently is no longer the best way to get American cargo and Americans to Space.

Some, though definitely not all, inside NASA realize this :

 

"Aerospace-industry executives, NASA contractors and employees all warn that unless the storied agency can become leaner and more efficient in an era of shrinking federal budgets, it could find itself becoming a historical footnote.

"NASA and industry need to partner together to change our approach," says Jim Maser, the president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which has designed virtually every rocket engine used by NASA since the dawn of the space program."

-http://www.gazettenet.com/2010/12/30/can-nasa-compete-spacex

 

While traditional insiders such as P&W, TRW, Boeing and Lockheed talk up the need for change, it often seems that their actions over the many many years speak louder.  Their budgets cost more and more for what appears to many to be less and less.

Along comes COTS and companies with initiative, and non-traditional core funding, invest their own money and thus are allowed to have more of their own control.  The logic appears sound and for at least one of the two major COTS players, it appears to be working.  SpaceX has so far hit its minimum required milestones and, so far, has been blessed with many amazing positive returns from the hard work and dedicated efforts of its uniquely All-American workforce.

 

"The accomplishment makes SpaceX the first commercial company ever to launch and re-enter a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit. To date, only six nations or governmental agencies have performed such a feat: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency."

- http://www.space.com/10455-private-space-capsule-launch-mind-blowingly-awesome.html

 

Yay!  360 million tax dollars did what it took billions and billions to do for generations! Pride in the NewSpace!  NASA is finally getting it together!  NASA is finally learning, and showing the old-schoolers that less can mean more!

Well, perhaps.

COTS investment may finally pay off in proving that the established companies have been a bit lax over the decades in their attempts to cut launch costs while retaining reliability.  SpaceX has rubbed this in their faces (and they are not happy). Even if SpaceX fades away, their publically breaking a cost barrier has been a great thing.

But will it truly cut the "required" overall NASA budgets?  Or is there a chance that the money will just be re-shuffled, taking from the very-visible Peter to pay the less obvious Paul?  Is there a chance, as we hail the dawn of a new low-cost yet reliable NASA day, that the old habits of obviously wasting tax dollars will continue just a few meters away from the cameras?

If one office reduces costs, another office down the hall can see that savings are free money that they can now "find a use for"; and once they have it it's hard to get it away so the whole process becomes a closed loop with no actual gain.  I've worked heads-down in more than a few companies where only hindsight showed me that this was exacty how I was working.  In my experience, it is a common practice; As middle-age appears on the (far) horizon I can see that is was not helpful at all to the companies I was paid to help. 

NASA is older than I am, but I don't think they are ready to "get it" yet.

For example, with the cost-saving excitement of SpaceX still on everyone's mind, the industry newspaper Space News reported this brief on page 8 of the March 21st 2011 edition:

 

"Al-Razaq Computing Services of Houston has been awarded a NASA contract worth as much as $99 Million to provide contracting and administrative support services to the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama"

Over in the Alabama Newspaper group site Alabama Live, we get a bit more of the story:

 

"Al-Razaq, which is Arabic for "the provider," is a sole-source privately held company that also supports the NASA center in Houston, NASA's Ames Research Center in California and the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, a company spokesman said. The company has picked up the employees of the preceding contract holder, spokesman Richard Getteaux said. "

 

So, the company is already in place at Ames. Huh. And with this deal they just get the employees of the company that they are replacing? Huh.

I am currently looking for a new project in the Space Industry and I prefer small companies and startups so reading a company name that appears to be a candidate for that niche I looked at their site.  It was a very very basic static little set of 6 HTML areas. Not too dynamic or even interesting from a "Computing Services" point of view.  And, most unfortunate, it gave no detail of what it was exactly that the company did for their customers, or rather their well-paying single customer.

So I looked them upon FedVendor... and aside from seeing that they do "...Software development and Computer Programming..", I didn't find out a whole lot.  So I looked them up on Daily Finance ... and again, found little of use.  So I tried a side-door, searching Lead411 for the sole proprietorship's owner Mohamed I Iscandri.  Again, more of the same, buzz phrases and mission statements. 

What the heck, back at their site I clicked on their big Careers page link, what they are looking for would tell what they do...

 

 

Boom.

Straight from the server, untrapped by any code, not wrapped by company messaging, not even a link back to the site proper. 

That screenshot was taken March 22nd.  Wow, I must have caught them just at the right time, huh?

Figuring that this error offered a small window to a great way to show my usefulness, I decided to let them know about it.  So I backed up to the site and clicked on the big "Contact Us" button.  I filled  in the email form and pressed send...

 

Boom take 2.  Al-Razaq "Computing Services" which has a front-page bullet about their "Software Development, Configuration & Customization Solutions Group", among with their other "groups", uses a freeware scripted, shared email processor (rather than coding their own junior-developer-level sendMail code) ... and hasn't paid their bills for a while.

Was it all working before the contract with Marshall was signed? I don't know.

To be fair, their site links to India's Angler Offshore (US, UK and Dubai) as being the "site designer".  Yeah?  So?  I've worked with a lot of Indians (some tell me that I seem to prefer it, maybe I do), over the years I can't say that I've ever worked with one or a group who would consider this professional development.  But if Al-Razaq wants to blame its Offshore company then I wonder if that is also the company that they will be using at Marshall.  

I called the Al-Razaq office, as a last ditch effort to try and give them the benefit of the doubt.  After trying to explain that there was a problem with their web site they should know about, I was connected to "Al-Razaq Technical Support".  I told the gentleman about the company web site being hosed for over a week and he said "I don't work for the company, sir, I'm with a company that provides support for them."

So.  Ok.  Is it like my weird neighbor up in Kirkland who was always in his slippers getting and sending UPS packages with an odd vague company name that was really his house?  Is there really an Al-Razaq Computing Services?  Is it all just one-offed, offshored, pay as you go contracted out ... "stuff"?  Swell. 

Ames is a sensitive Research facility and Marshall is the center for development of Rockets and Propulsion. And these guys got their contract.

Sorry, they're damned if they don't and damned if they do on this one.. but please remember that I wasn't paid to look under their skirts as part of the review of their abilities to manage at Marshall, I'm just a regular guy who was interested in a possible gig.  From my vantage point and from the resources that are available to a regular American who loves NASA,  trying to get a handle on who actually works "bending tin" at this little company is as tangled as doing the same for a multinational like Boeing.  Why? 

In Space Launch Hardware, isn't this the kind of stuff that lead to NASA being required to start COTS.

 

If it weren't for the 99 million dollar contract, that was apparently just an addition to their already being contracted to provide services to the uber-research Ames facility, I would have dropped it right there and moved on... if it weren't for the 99 million.

Over-reaction? 

Look, a transient web site bug can happen to anyone but this not a transient bug.  I snapped those pictures on March 21st and have checked their site every day since... it remains broken at the top level.  Two out of six of the top menu options explode when touched. 

I hope "explode" is not prophetic... They are a "Computing Services" company, now enjoying a sizable contract from the Rocket and rocket propulsion center for the United States Government.

Lazy programming would only explain it if it happened for a short while and then was caught and fixed.  Several days of it still being there?  Weak developers, inexperienced testers, distracted managers... or simply that the company doesn't care. 

Then again, who is there at Al-Razaq who actually works, personally, on their products and services?  Why would a temp hired by a contractor who himself was hired by a contractor from an offshore house on the phone with Dubai care about the company's website... or anything else that Al-Razaq does.

Maybe I should get a gig there... maybe it's pretty easy to hide in this web of contractors and make a bunch of money and get a bunch of NASA data without anyone being the wiser.

When re-checking the error the next day I noticed the front-page link to "Al-Razaq Leasing Services" (see it below, under the bullets including "Software Development, Configuration & Customization"):

... clicking that link brings you to Amerisource Funding, a great way to show the company's credibility...

... or not :( .  In case Al-Razaq jumped the gun with their link I just used the Amerisource Funding search system to find their actual page.  There was none; this vendor was not found.

At this point it was getting clear that getting a job with Al-Razaq night not be a very good idea.  I could definitely help them with their site... but so could a middle school kid. This is not advanced stuff, their web site just 1998 HTML and a couple of 3rd party freebies. The problem with Al-Razaq as a "Computing Services" company, in my experience, is beyond simple and acceptable mistakes.

I contacted Marshall Space Flight Center, using the www.nasa.gov/centers/marshallsite's contact page.  Apparently Al-Razaq has not yet taken over because the Marshall web site still worked ;-).  I asked what it was exactly that Al-Razaq Computing Services was going to be doing, exactly, at Marshall.

A quick response from the center gave me a link to the Contracts page ( http://prod.nais.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/eps/sol.cgi?acqid=138104 ).  At the bottom of that page was a link to the document that detailed the Process used to give Al-Razaq contract ( http://prod.nais.nasa.gov/eps/eps_data/138104-OTHER-013-001.pdf ).

I thanked the Marshall officer with this reply:

 

"The document ABSS contract Request for Proposals (http://prod.nais.nasa.gov/eps/eps_data/138104-OTHER-013-001.pdf) tells the process used and their past performance, presumably somewhat related to work at Ames, makes process-sense.

As just a simple outsider though, when I read part 1, paragraph 2 ( "... responsible for providing support in the following functional areas... (3)business systems (4) business best practices...") and I put that line in relation to a company that has a six section static web site with 2 out of the six sections having extended top level errors that a junior level developer would be above and a manager would get fixed immediately, I just have to scratch my head. :-)"

 

What is going on here?  Upwards of 99 million dollars is indeed less than the 300-ish million awarded to SpaceX but SpaceX is clearly doing a good job (and we can clearly see the job they are supposed to be doing), while this company that supposedly will be servicing the Marshall Spaceflight Center and the 1,800 acre Redstone Arsenal with vague "Computing Services" apparently can't even do a token job of making their own company web site of 6 typed pages work correctly.

To beat the dead horse: 99 million is less than some other NASA CoDBs... but it is still 99 million dollars and every one of those dollars is coming out of the NASA budget.  Remember, NASA's budget is not as high most Americans perceive it to be ... so 99 million is about at the point of hitting "real money" in the relative bucket. 

The exciting battle wages on in forums and SIG meetings as to whether investing in COTS bodes good or ill for the American Space Program.  Meanwhile, down the hall in the boring paperclip, network cables and "administration support" offices, multimillion dollar contract checks are being signed and cashed with little notice.

This all isn't all about Al-Razaq individually, I'll bet they are nice people who love their kids, they just got my mind working; it's a question of whether one bit of dust on the floor is a harmless oversight or a sign of an infestation. We could be saving billions in launch and space hardware costs thanks to COTS, that saved money could be then funneled into great and amazing In-Space projects and programs that are currently dying on the vine.  I'm wondering though if that's the route that the saved money will actually follow.

Maybe we need COTS for more than just the fun stuff. 

Or maybe what we really get out of COTS is the awareness that SpaceX is not so much an anomaly in its ability to do solid work quickly and reliably and within a realistic budget, but rather that it is onto something in its business style of doing work in-house with a local workforce that is actually part of the company and thus part of the pride and the effort and of the results.  Maybe what we are seeing play out in the COTS arena is just that the traditional complex overly-contracted-out style, from little Al-Razaq to big ol'Lockheed is directly related to overruns and bloat and loss of control and... well, to the *Need* for COTS.

What do you think?

 

 

>>Update April 8th 2011:

Ok, so after seeing a number of hits coming into this page from all around Huntville ;-), today I checked and the Careers page at the Al-Razaq "Computing Services" site no longer returns an immediate PHP server error. Now, that menu option is linked to the address "http://192.168.100.95/hrapplicant", which fails to load.

Is it me or does 192.168.... look a lot like in internal router address? If so then the folks inside the Al-Razaq network think that they have fixed the issue while anyone clicking from the outside is still getting a failure.

"Computing Services." Honestly, would you hire this company for your tiny business? NASA did for three of their major facilities.

I tried to tell them that they still had problems, I once again used their Contact Us menu option. Unfortunately, it is still down due to "Plan Expired" (same as shown above). Guess the millions from NASA weren't enough to pay their unsecured email vendor bill. However they DID update the Contact Us page to include their new Marshall Office address. Great, huh?

Guys: This isn't a rinkydink billyboy site we're talking here, it is suposedly the Corporate Face of a company now taking big checks from NASA. They supposedly specialize in "Software Programming."

But if you are older and still don't equate a Corporate web site with a company atmosphere, then check this:

Al-Razaq "Computing Services" Leasing? Their bank, Amerisource Funding, has still apparently not heard of them.

April 8th 2011 End Update<<


 

 

"There is nothing inherently expensive about rockets. It's just that those who have built and operated them in the past have done so with horrendously poor efficiency."
-Elon Musk

"Falcon is going to be the lowest cost per flight to orbit of any production rocket. Which means we’re cheaper than the Chinese, cheaper than [the] Russians or anywhere else – and we’re doing it in the United States with American labour costs"
- Elon Musk



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