NASA's faster-better-cheaper method waters down payoff

Scientists question space agency's approach as failed missions mount

May 10, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

The prevailing joke at an international conference on low-cost space missions went like this: "Faster, Better, Cheaper? You can only pick two."

During their three-day meeting last week at the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, engineers and industry officials from around the country acknowledged an aching truth behind the three little words that have bedeviled space projects through much of the last decade.

Given today's aerospace technology and production skills, fast and cheap are easy. But better? Not yet, they say.

"The future of faster-better-cheaper as a slogan I hope goes away as fast as possible," said Liam Sarsfield, senior policy analyst for RAND. "We don't have the math that shows it works. In fact, the math we have suggests that in many cases it does not work."

The failure of the Mars Polar Lander in December is the most recent example of failures. Others include losses of the Spartan sun probe, Mars Climate Orbiter, the Lewis satellite, the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer satellite and an unusual string of botched launches. The steady accumulation of failures have now clearly distinguished faster-better-cheaper missions from more traditional projects, analysts said.

Coined in 1993 by NASA Adminstrator Daniel Goldinto spur vast changes in the doddering culture of aerospace, the phrase "Faster, Better, Cheaper" entered the aerospace lexicon. The complaint voiced at the conference was that Goldin created the concept without giving any definition or practical explanation for how it would work.

Although Goldin used the phrase frequently to describe a new way of doing business - smaller teams building smaller spacecraft using smaller budgets - faster-better-cheaper was variously referred to as a policy, a philosophy, a mantra, a slogan and an ethic.

As rockets went awry and spacecraft died, the formula was also increasingly referred to as a failure.

"What happens is, we get to about the 80 percent point on a program and everything just stops," Sarsfield said. "We dive at the launch date and eliminate testing, incurring risks that go up astronomically."

At a panel discussion, engineers and project managers from places like Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Jet Propulsion Laboratory seemed to agree that no one knew exactly what faster-better-cheaper meant at the program level. Puzzled managers scrambled to meet tighter budgets and hired less-experienced engineers to cut costs. Conference members recalled stories of teams forced to work extreme hours, limit testing and avoid a regular schedule of formal reviews.

"One of the hallmarks was green management and satellite sweatshops," Sarsfield said. "What faster-better-cheaper really amounts to is cheaper-cheaper-cheaper."

For instance, while engineers tried awkwardly to revamp their way of doing business, policy-makers interpreted Goldin's slogan as a sign that the days of behemoth space projects and gargantuan budgets had ended. Consequently, Sarsfield said, they cut aerospace budgets without fully acknowledging that faster-better-cheaper was an experimental concept and they should share responsibility for the consequences.

"What we've seen is not faster-better-cheaper, but faster-smaller-cheaper," said William Tosney, an analyst at the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research center in El Segundo, Calif.

During the conference, Tosney argued that aerospace is still a craft industry, charged with building mostly one-of-a-kind spacecraft for an enormous range of missions. The faster-better-cheaper philosophy, however, evolved from an unstated premise that spacecraft production could be standardized and technology built relatively quickly using a kind of production-line model.

Faster-better-cheaper "was laid out with no clear road map," he said. "It was supposed to lead to an optimized production process. But even today you can take no comfort from the performance of mass-produced satellites."

An analysis by the Aerospace Corporation of 457 satellite missions throughout the '90s showed that programs that could be classified as faster-better-cheaper had a 27 percent failure rate during their first year compared with traditional programs that had a 6 percent failure rate. After three years, Tosney said, the failure rate was 47 percent for faster-better-cheaper versus 35 percent for traditional missions.

Another study, presented at the conference by Aerospace Corporation analyst David Bearden, showed a strong correlation between failed missions and project managers' underestimations of mission complexity. That has led to errors in costs and schedules, he said. The loss of adequate planning time, Bearden said, often skirted to save money, has resulted in inadequately tested spacecraft and premature launches.

Better-faster-cheaper "is a good slogan," Bearden said, "but the problem is it's become a shotgun approach. You can accept that a certain percentage of missions will fail, but without knowing how to manage the risks, you don't know if the failures will be eight out of 10 or one out of 10."

A recent NASA-sponsored report written by Anthony Spear, who led the successful Mars Pathfinder project, concluded that the faster-better-cheaper edict pushed teams too quickly and constrained costs unreasonably.

But despite the criticisms, Spear said at the conference, Goldin's vision is attainable. It simply needs more definition. Many engineers seemed to agree.

"Faster-better-cheaper is here to stay," Spear said. "The cost of spacecraft is going to come down. And some day everybody will be able to do space exploration - not just NASA, but universities, Third World countries, even these high-roller dot-com companies."

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