NASA Finally Figured Out How to Develop Technology—Then Promptly Forgot

Faster, better & cheaper was the key, as Dan Ward explains

NASA Finally Figured Out How to Develop Technology—Then Promptly Forgot NASA Finally Figured Out How to Develop Technology—Then Promptly Forgot

Uncategorized August 27, 2013 0

NASA art NASA Finally Figured Out How to Develop Technology—Then Promptly Forgot Faster, better & cheaper was the key, as Dan Ward explains In... NASA Finally Figured Out How to Develop Technology—Then Promptly Forgot
NASA art

NASA Finally Figured Out How to Develop Technology—Then Promptly Forgot

Faster, better & cheaper was the key, as Dan Ward explains

In 1992, then-NASA administrator Dan Goldin launched an initiative called Faster, Better, Cheaper. It was meant to develop new technologies … well, faster, better and cheaper.

And it worked, provided there was room for the occasional failure.

But the space agency — not to mention the rest of the U.S. government — never really appreciated the effort’s success, and quickly forgot any hard-learned lessons.

As the sequestration saga continues to drive austerity measures across the government, it’s high time we take a closer look at what NASA achieved using this high-speed, low-cost approach to inventing stuff.

Here are 20 things to get you started:

NEAR-Shoemaker. NASA photo
  1. The whole idea was to deliberately — even ruthlessly — constrain the time, money, personnel and complexity of a project. According to Prof. Howard McCurdy’s book Faster, Better, Cheaper, there were 16 missions in the FBC initiative, including five trips to Mars, one to the moon, four Earth-orbiting satellites, three space telescopes and two comet and asteroid rendezvous.
  2. Total cost for the 16 missions was less than the price of the traditionally-managed Cassini mission to Saturn.
  3. Cassini took 15 years to produce, whereas all 16 FBC missions were completed in a combined seven years.
  4. Cassini succeeded. But so did nine of the first 10 FBC missions, including the Pathfinder mission to Mars and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, a.k.a., NEAR-Shoemaker.
  5. Pathfinder was launched in half the time and 1/15th the cost of the 1970s Viking mission to Mars by a team one third the size.
  6. The Pathfinder rover was active on Mars’ surface for three times longer than planned. It collected 17,000 images.
  7. Mars is a hard place to visit. The Russians never reached the Red Planet despite 19 attempts, which makes Pathfinder’s success all the more impressive.
  8. The NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft traveled two billion miles to intercept the asteroid Eros, where it collected 10 times more data than expected.
  9. NEAR-Shoemaker came in $78 million under its $200-million budget.
  10. Despite being not being designed as a lander, NEAR descended to Eros’ surface at a leisurely four miles per hour and set down gently enough that its sensors continued functioning for two weeks after the landing.
  11. This landing was the first time such a maneuver had even been attempted. NEAR is still sitting on Eros today.
  12. Overall, six FBC missions failed. NASA decided the success rate for FBC was too low and, under significant political pressure, abandoned the approach.
  13. Only five missions failed in space. The sixth failure was the Clark satellite, which NASA cancelled when its cost grew by 15 percent.
  14. Four of the six failures occurred in 1999, including the Mars Polar Lander, the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Wide Field Infrared Explorer.
  15. FBC mission failures were primarily caused by not using FBC methods. McCurdy’s book points out the botched missions neglected “to institute the full scope of [FBC] techniques” and instead used slower, more expensive management and engineering approaches.
  16. The Faster, Better, Cheaper Task Force’s final report, published in 2000, attributed mission failures to poor communications and mistakes in engineering and management. Such flaws are neither unique nor ubiquitous to the FBC method.
  17. By 2001, the space agency abandoned FBC even though NASA’s Inspector General recommended NASA “fully incorporate FBC into the strategic management process.”
  18. The Faster, Better, Cheaper Task Force’s final report made a similar recommendation, emphatically stating that “Dan Goldin is right on with this FBC thrust” and encouraging NASA to “instill this cultural change throughout the complete organization.”
  19. NASA management did not concur with the Inspector General’s recommendation, arguing they’d been using the method since 1992 and thus FBC was already sufficiently integrated.
  20. NASA cancelled FBC anyway, and the rest of the world concluded that when it came to doing things faster, better and cheaper, it was necessary to pick only two. But nothing in NASA’s experience supports the pick-two conclusion. New tech can be developed quicker and at lower cost — as long as occasional failure is an option.

Dan Ward is an active-duty officer in the U.S. Air Force. He specializes in rapid innovation, particularly in space and cyberspace technologies. His book F.I.R.E.: Why Constraints Ignite Innovation, is scheduled be published by HarperCollins in April 2014. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force.

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