Space mission engineering is the definition of mission parameters and refinement of requirements so as to meet the broad, often poorly defined, objectives of a space mission in a timely manner at minimum cost and risk.

Reducing mission cost and schedule has always been important. However, because of the high cost of spacecraft and launch systems, the primary emphasis has traditionally been on minimizing mass and optimizing the design. These issues are still important today, but other factors have changed substantially. Dramatic advances in computers and microelectronics have transformed what can be done in a small, low-cost package. Lightweight composite structures have transformed how we build things.

Unfortunately, U.S. budgetary concerns and the “space spiral” of ever-increasing cost, demand for higher reliability, fewer missions and more increased cost have created a space program that we can no longer afford. There are more things that we need to do or would like to do in space than there is money available to do them. At the same time, the rest of the world, including our adversaries, is becoming much more competent in what they can do in space.

Fortunately, there is ample evidence in both existing and proposed programs that making dramatic reductions in cost and schedule is possible, while maintaining high reliability and low risk. In addition, low-cost satellites have ever-increasing mission utility — but it is exceptionally difficult to change the process that we have created over 50 years of space exploration.

What we need to do is reinvent space mission engineering — that is, to find a new process that lets us dramatically reduce mission cost and schedule while maintaining a high level of mission utility and reliability. In addition, we need to expand the process to include such elements as personnel, attitude and cost-sharing approaches that are important to dramatically reducing cost and risk but aren’t usually thought of as “engineering.”

Certainly, there is some level of implementation risk in changing the rules of how we do business in space. We might not be able to achieve all that we would like. But it should be clear that there is a far greater risk in not changing. In the words of Pete Rustan, a former senior manager and technical innovator at the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office: “If we do not transform, we will cease to be a leader as a spacefaring nation.”

This “Reinventing Space” series began in the Feb. 4 issue of SpaceNews [“Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost,” Commentary, page 19]. Ten subsequent pieces have appeared online at This 12th and final article summarizes the new mission engineering process for creating dramatically lower cost and more rapid and responsive missions while maintaining a high level of mission utility.

Small is Beautiful, But Not the Only Answer

Although it is not always true, smaller spacecraft generally cost less, often a great deal less. Of course there are some things that physics doesn’t let us do with small satellites. Resolution (for observations) and power-aperture (for communications) are both proportional to size. However, flying low can be an excellent substitute for large aperture and has the secondary benefit of essentially mitigating the orbital debris problem, for that particular mission and future missions, by flying spacecraft in a regime where orbital debris quickly re-enters and burns up. In addition, there are a very large number of cost reduction techniques — such as those associated with attitude, personnel, system engineering, mission design and government/customer approaches — that are applicable to missions of all sizes. Bluntly put, arguing that a particular mission requires a really big, expensive spacecraft is an excuse for not starting a cost reduction program, but not a very good one.

Dramatically Lower Cost Also Means Lower Risk

Disaggregation is the process of replacing a large, multifunction satellite with multiple smaller, simpler, much lower cost and probably shorter lived satellites. In purely economic terms, $2 billion spent over the next 15 years is much lower cost than $2 billion spent today to achieve the same objective. It is also much lower risk. If we lose one or two satellites out of a 10- or 15-satellite constellation, there is some performance or coverage degradation and an increase in the total cost to get the job done. If we lose the only satellite doing a particular task, then that capability is gone for the foreseeable future — certainly for several years. We have not yet invented indestructible planes, trains, cars, computers or cellphones. It is unlikely that we will invent indestructible or 100 percent reliable spacecraft or launch systems in the immediate future. Distributed, disaggregated assets significantly reduce risk, and a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center small satellite study has shown that the reliability of smallsats is essentially comparable to that of larger, more traditional satellites.

Most Everything Has Potential Consequences, Positive and Negative

We originally aggregated functions into single large satellites in order to have payloads work together, reduce the “overhead” of spacecraft bus functions, and therefore reduce cost and risk. Now we are proposing to go in the other direction for the same reasons. If there were any approach that had only good consequences (e.g., “Don’t build your spacecraft out of cast iron”), it is highly likely that we’re already doing it. There are two main results of this: (1) There is no substitute for good mission and system engineering in which we look at the problem as a whole, and (2) we need to find the right balance between extremes, and that balance may shift over time.

There is No Single, Simple Answer

These articles have suggested many approaches to reducing cost; however, contractors and customers alike must always be on the lookout for new approaches that will work within their culture. They must also be willing to challenge that culture when cost-saving practices are possible but go against the “known” practices. Program managers and system engineers are exceptionally good at what they do. Most of the simple solutions have been found and implemented. Driving down cost dramatically is going to take a combination of approaches that work together to get a high level of mission utility at dramatically lower cost.

It Takes Hard Work and Real |Engineering

The implication of the two items above is that it takes hard work and real engineering to get to where we want to go. This, in turn, implies spending money and starting programs — both on low-cost research and development and on low-cost missions and programs to achieve specific goals. We can’t simply tell a program manager to go forth and build the next generation spacecraft for half of what the last generation cost, and don’t change how you do anything or spend any R&D to get there. We need senior leaders to support making real and substantive changes and to back that up by providing the resources needed to do them. While we can expect to save money in the near term and save lots of money in the longer term, very few things are free, and reducing cost has a price.

We Need to Reverse the Space Spiral

High cost means a demand for lower risk and higher reliability, which, especially when coupled with lower U.S. budgets, means fewer missions, which means much higher cost, no innovation, and losing our advantage as the world’s leader in space. Where we want to be is a world with more, much lower cost missions, which creates inherently lower risk and less demand for perfection (which we can’t get anyway). This leads to greater innovation and more introduction of new technology, which both improves performance and further reduces cost, which in turn allows more missions to be flown even in the face of budget challenges and, most likely, some cost overruns. (We can change the way the world works, but we can’t perform magic.)

It Can Be Done

It is clear that the dramatically reducing cost can be done and that low-cost missions will have ever-increasing utility. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. has been doing this for over a quarter-century, with most recent examples being the Disaster Monitoring Constellation and the recently launched Surrey Training Research and Nanosatellite Demonstration spacecraft. Sierra Nevada Corp. is building the next generation of Orbcomm satellites at a very low cost. Microcosm has proposed the NanoEye spacecraft with very high utility at very low cost. There will be many more examples as the pressure to reduce cost continues. The key point is that this is a workable problem that can be solved. It isn’t easy, but it can be done.

The Results Can Transform the Future of Space

The net result of reinventing space, and reinventing space mission engineering in order to get there, can be truly transformational for the space program. Think of the potential of a space program that is much closer to what is now occurring with unmanned aerial vehicles or automobiles or cellphones. This is a world where there are continuously both new capabilities and new applications, where we are continuously startled by the new things that can be done from space and in space to support the warfighter, the scientist and the user in the street. For example, it may be that the GPS receiver in your phone not only knows where you are but at the push of 9-1-1 can tell someone else your exact location (even if you’re in the middle of the ocean), what the problem is, and show a photo or clip of what is going on. There is a real potential to see a rapid and dramatic evolution in space systems’ cost and capability.

The current economic problems have the potential to dramatically curtail space exploration and exploitation or lead to a new era of more robust, capable and lower-cost systems. The choice is ours. We will make that choice by either proceeding with business as usual or reinventing how we do business in space.


James R. Wertz is president of Microcosm Inc. He is co-author of “Reducing Space Mission Cost,” published in 1996, and has been teaching a graduate course at the University of Southern California on that topic since then. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, or simply want to discuss these issues, he can be reached at Information on the joint Microcosm/USC Reinventing Space Project can be found at |


Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Ground Segment and Operations

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Reducing Launch Cost

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Government/Customer Approaches

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Spacecraft Technology

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Personnel

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Traditional Large Missions

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Mission Design

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Programmatic Approaches

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Systems Engineering Approaches

Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Attitude

James Wertz is president of Microcosm Inc. and an adjunct professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California. He is editor and a co-author of “Reducing Space Mission Cost” (1996), “Space Mission Analysis and Design” (SMAD — 1990,...