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Reinventing Space: Dramatically Reducing Space Mission Cost — Attitude

This is the second in a series of articles on how to go about dramatically reducing space mission cost while maintaining a high level of mission utility. To achieve our broad objectives at much lower cost and in less time, we need to change both the technology and the process by which we acquire and develop it. These articles will alternate between the two.

The most important element in reducing cost is the attitude of the organization that is doing the work of driving down cost. This could be either the organization that is buying the system, such as the U.S. Air Force or NASA, or the organization that is designing and building it, typically an aerospace prime contractor. 

Historically, the organization that is the leader in creating much lower cost yet very capable space missions is Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), founded in 1985 and still run by Sir Martin Sweeting. SSTL is now majority-owned by Astrium but retains a great deal of independence in its operations.

Other than its long history of building low-cost satellites, what is it that has kept SSTL at the top of this line of work for over 25 years? Does it happen to have the world’s best satellite engineers or a magic wand used by its senior managers? Certainly, they are very good, but many space organizations worldwide also have excellent engineers and managers. I would argue that Surrey’s principal advantage is the attitude of the people in the organization. They are proud of what they do and continue to take great pride in coming up with new, low-cost ways of doing business and building satellites. It is a challenge that those at Surrey enjoy, and they like taking on a “competition” that they very much want to win.

With the Surrey example in mind, here are some of the key components in creating the right attitude:

1. Make it important. In order to reduce cost and schedule, these have to be important to the system engineers, the program management and the procuring organization. We’ll talk about some specific ways to do this in a later article, but we all understand that there are lots of ways to convey to employees, contractors and subcontractors what is really important. That’s one of the things that leaders do best — convey a sense of what is important and necessary.

2. Avoid “designing to a reliability of zero.” There is a sense in many areas of space technology that “so long as it works in the end, cost and schedule don’t really matter.” But to the soldier who was killed because the system wasn’t there, it doesn’t matter that it would have been a great system when it was finally launched (or when it was canceled due to cost). Mike Hurley and Bill Purdy of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory expressed this approach of accepting endless delays and cost overruns as “designing to a reliability of zero” — i.e., for every year that the system isn’t there, it has a reliability of zero to the end user that needs the system. Avoiding this pitfall doesn’t mean that we should ignore potential problems and build unreliable systems just to get them done, but it does mean that we need to take into account the impact of delay and the potential for cancellation on the needs of those who may be dependent on the mission results.

3. Recognize that it’s possible to do better and that this isn’t a criticism of current or past programs. Technology advances occur in all fields, and we are continually learning more about how to create space systems better, faster and cheaper. Even though the space processes and technology that we have today have been created by some of the most capable and hardworking engineers and managers in the world, this doesn’t mean that we can’t do better as time moves on. As we mentioned in the introductory article, the refrain “faster, better, cheaper — pick any two” is both common and wrong. 

4. Recognize that reducing cost has a price. Reducing cost and schedule is hard work. It takes real engineering, dedication and effort. This, in turn, means that we must allocate the resources and effort needed to achieve it.  Reducing cost isn’t free. However, even in the near term, this effort, implemented wisely, should result in substantial reductions in both cost and schedule.

5. Support others who are also trying to reduce cost. It’s always hard to gain support for your approach or technology. If you support someone else’s approach, you have the beginning of a coalition, and they are more likely to support your approach in return. Building a coalition helps move things forward.

6. Recognize that virtually any technique can increase or decrease cost. One of the reasons that reducing cost and schedule is hard work is that it requires finding the right balance and not just blindly obeying a set of rules or following a fixed recipe or process. It depends on how the process is implemented. For example, one of the system engineering approaches to reducing mission cost is to design with large margins such that we are less likely to fail tests, less susceptible to small variations, and don’t need as many operational procedures to guard against going out of narrow boundaries. On the other hand, if we force electronic equipment to meet an environmental specification well beyond what it will ever see in practice, it can greatly increase cost and schedule. We have to look for a sensible compromise that meets our end objectives.

7. Believe in the future. If you believe that something can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or isn’t worth giving up something else to achieve it, then it is likely that you won’t be able to achieve it. In order to create a better future, the first requirement is to believe in it.

Our overall goal is to dramatically reduce space mission cost and schedule while at the same time achieving or surpassing most of the broad mission objectives and maintaining the standard of excellence for which we all have become justifiably proud. It is hard work and takes real effort and good engineering, but the first step to getting there is to have the right attitude. 

In the next installment in this series, we will look at systems engineering approaches to reducing cost.

 

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. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, he can be reached at jwertz@smad.com. Information on the joint Microcosm/USC Reinventing Space Project can be found at www.smad.com/reinventingspace.html.

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