Commentary | Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost

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Is it possible to dramatically reduce the cost of space missions and, if so, how do we go about it?

By “dramatically reducing cost,” I mean reducing the cost of space missions by a factor of two 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.

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.”

This is the first in a series of articles intended to point out what appear to be the most likely ways to accomplish the goal of reinventing space and some of the successes and setbacks that have resulted from prior attempts. Subsequent articles will appear online at www.ReinventingSpace.SpaceNews.com.

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 U.S. Department of Defense and NASA budgets will be reduced by less than 10 percent. Reducing cost by 10 percent is far easier than reducing it by a factor of two, five 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:

  • They can serve as backups or gap fillers for traditional programs.

  • They can provide much more responsive and persistent coverage of critical areas or events.

  • They can make use of newer technology or meet changing demands.

  • They 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.

How does a government or industrial organization get started on the process of dramatically reducing mission cost? Here is a first set of “rules,” which will be expanded on in later articles.

1. Recognize the need. Recognize that the need is real and that it’s worth some sacrifice in changing the way we do business in space. There are lots of objections to reducing space mission cost (these types of missions are less reliable, they don’t meet the requirements, etc.) that are summarized on our website devoted to this topic, www.smad.com/reinventingspace.html, along with responses. If there isn’t a really strong need, then it doesn’t make sense to start down this path.

2. Make it a priority. Containing cost has been a priority on essentially all space programs, but it’s usually the last priority. Instead, the first priority should be “meeting most of the broad mission objectives at dramatically lower cost,” just as it is for new cars, new computers or almost anything else we design and build.

3. Start a cost-reduction program and fund it. If you have determined that there is a need for a new left-handed gizmo, you create a left-handed gizmo program and proceed to find out about all of the gizmos currently on the market and the research others have done in gizmo design and manufacturing. The same is true for serious cost reduction. A cost-reduction program, a “low-cost skunkworks,” needs to be run by a senior, innovation-oriented engineering manager who meets regularly with other senior managers. Everything costs money to get under way, and reducing cost is no exception.

4. Set aggressive yet realistic objectives. If you want to have a real impact, you can’t start building a new type of low-cost spacecraft on Day 1 and you can’t study the problem for a decade. You need to find a reasonable balance by setting aggressive yet achievable objectives. In my view, a reasonable expectation would be to have a program in place for the future within six months, a strong impact on the organization within 12 to 24 months, and highly capable, dramatically lower-cost spacecraft on orbit in 24 to 36 months. Because this is meant to be a very pragmatic and practical activity, the very first objective needs to be to find out what can realistically be done in what time frame and at what cost.

5. Look outside your organization. Almost by definition, finding new technologies, new processes and new ways of doing business means looking outside your existing organization (or at your low-cost skunkworks, if it already exists). What have others done that might be applicable or modified to be applicable? What other approaches have worked well and what haven’t, and why? Research and conversation is invaluable. Attend events like the Reinventing Space Conference in Los Angeles and the SmallSat Conference at Utah State University. As has been said before, “Six months in the laboratory can save you a week in the library.”

This is the beginning of our discussion on dramatically reducing space mission cost. Future articles at SpaceNews.com will address various aspects of the topic including attitude, personnel, program, government/customer, systems engineering, mission, launch, spacecraft technology and operations.

 

James R. Wertz is president of Microcosm Inc. He is co-author of “Reducing Space Mission Cost,” published in 1996, and has taught a graduate course at the University of Southern California on that topic since then. He can be reached at jwertz@smad.com.