Reinventing Space

Is it possible to dramatically reduce the cost of space missions and, if so, how do we go about it? First, by “dramatically reducing cost,” which means reducing the cost of space missions by a factor of 2 to 10 or more with respect to what similar traditional missions would cost, with some caveats. Let’s recognize at the outset that essentially all space missions are run so as to try to minimize cost and most are well managed and efficiently executed. After all, no one starts out to create a space program that is too expensive and takes too long. If we’re looking for essentially the same space mission we built last time, with the same requirements and same rules, it will cost about the same. What we’re really after in reinventing space is trying to achieve the same broad objectives, but much quicker and at far lower cost. It’s not whether we meet the same numerical specifications, but whether we can use different processes and more modern technology to save the lives of more American soldiers in Afghanistan or tsunami victims in Japan, monitor the Earth’s environment, create better global communications, or explore both Mars and the distant reaches of the Universe in ways that are truly “faster, better, cheaper.”

At some level, reinventing space means changing the culture, and that’s a remarkably hard thing to do. These days, any time you mention “faster, better, cheaper” in a group, at least one person will respond with “faster, better, cheaper— pick any two.” It’s as though our modern space program is as good as it’s ever going to be and the processes used to get there are as unchangeable as the laws of thermodynamics. Yet we know this isn’t true in other fields. Computers are getting faster, better, and cheaper every year, as are most electronics, such as cameras or televisions. Historical evidence suggests that space mission cost can be dramatically reduced and that lower cost missions are becoming remarkably more competent, often by taking advantage of advances in modern materials, microelectronics, and computer technology [NASA, 2008]1.

While the evidence suggests that it is indeed possible to dramatically reduce space mission cost, it is certainly not an easy thing to do. It takes good engineering, good management, and probably an element of good luck to make progress. But it is also important. There are more things that we would like to accomplish in space than there are funds available to do them. The only way to fulfill the real promise of space is to do it “faster, better, cheaper.”

Why Should We Reinvent Space? It’s remarkably challenging and there are lots of pitfalls along the way. Even in the worst economic forecasts, it is likely that DoD and NASA budgets will be reduced by less than 10%. Reducing cost by 10% is far easier than reducing it by a factor of 2, 5, or 10, so why would we want to take on such a challenging technical and management problem? If you believe your program’s budget is secure and can accommodate some cost and schedule overruns, then it likely isn’t worth the real effort and sacrifice required to change how you do business in space. However, if the mission is an important one, the budget is subject to more than the usual pressure, the mission spans multiple years or administrations, or your program or organization is competing for potentially dwindling funds, then it is important to look at ways to dramatically reduce cost. If your organization has multiple programs in various stages of development, the more traditional and more expensive ones will likely take the lion’s share of the funds and the remaining programs will need to strongly reduce cost to have any potential of being funded. In addition, creating some much faster, much cheaper programs provides several secondary benefits:

  • Can serve as back-ups or gap fillers for traditional programs
  • Can provide much more responsive and persistent coverage of critical areas or events
  • Can make use of newer technology or meet changing demands
  • Can potentially introduce technology or processes that can reduce cost on larger, more expensive programs

A robust space program should be a mix of traditional large, probably expensive programs and some much lower cost, more rapid, more responsive programs.

For more insight into Reinventing Space and to participate in this growing community of aerospace professionals and educators, please visit the Reinventing Space Project website at:

www.smad.com/ReinventingSpace.html

1 NASA. 2008.  Smallsat Study Final Report.  NASA Small Explorers Office Smallsat Study, Final Report, Jun.