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Review: FBC examined

Faster, Better, Cheaper: Low-Cost Innovation in the U.S. Space Program
By Howard E. McCurdy
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001
Hardcover, 174 pp.
ISBN 0-8018-6720-7

If a single phrase can be used to identify NASA in the 1990s, it would almost certainly be “faster, better, cheaper”. NASA administrator Dan Goldin pushed the idea of doing science missions on shorter schedules and smaller budgets than the massive flagship missions like Galileo and Cassini throughout his record tenure at NASA. The result were a number of tremendous successes, such as Mars Pathfinder and Deep Space One, as well as embarrassing failures like Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter. How the faster-better-cheaper (FBC) philosophy came into being at NASA and the mixed bag of results during the decade is the subject of Howard McCurdy’s monograph Faster, Better, Cheaper.

The FBC philosophy came to NASA through the Defense Department, where the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was working on a number of small satellite programs, including the Clementine lunar mission. The White House grabbed onto the approach and, after ousting NASA administrator Richard Truly because of his support for traditional large missions, put in Goldin, a TRW executive, to lead the new approach. Goldin was not initially fully supportive of small spacecraft missions—McCurdy notes that, at his confirmation hearing, he told then-Senator Al Gore that NASA would be making “a very grave mistake” if it focused exclusively on small missions—but eventually came around after seeing the shape of NASA’s budget. From that point on Goldin became a tireless, forceful advocate for FBC, though good times and bad.

McCurdy, a professor of public policy at American University, does not take a chronological approach to his study of FBC, but instead looks at several aspects of it, including organizational issues, technology, reliability, and cost control. This approach can make it a bit difficult to find the lessons learned from FBC—that is, what makes a small, low-cost mission successful—but there are some key points scattered throughout the book. McCurdy notes that one of the key reasons Mars Pathfinder was successful was that it was able to fly under the radar while being developed at JPL: because the center was preoccupied with the far-larger Cassini mission, Mars Pathfinder has little oversight. “Being small and relatively invisible helped ‘faster, better, cheaper’ team members convince themselves that they really had the power to solve their own problems without excessive oversight,” McCurdy notes. The success of Pathfinder, ironically, eliminated that advantage, as future FBC missions became subject to a greater degree of scrutiny.

One of the key reasons Mars Pathfinder was successful was that it was able to fly under the radar while being developed at JPL, with little oversight.

McCurdy also touches on why several missions failed in 1999, including the two major Mars missions as well as Deep Space 2 and the infrared telescope WIRE. Drawing on research by David Bearden of the Aerospace Corporation, he notes that trying to develop a mission too quickly, regardless of the budget, is more likely to cause problems than trying to develop a spacecraft on simply a low budget. Bearden also found that missions that didn’t develop the close level of teamwork required for FBC, where individuals typically have greater degrees of responsibility and oversight than in larger missions, were also prone to failure. (The tendency for complex missions developed on short schedules to fail has been raised as a concern about the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions; see “Why is Mars so hard?” June 2, 2003)

Faster, Better, Cheaper is a relatively short book—barely 150 pages, excluding endnotes and index—so it does not go into a great level of detail. It was published in 2001, within two years of the set of failures, so it doesn’t include the latest on several missions, notably the loss of another FBC mission, CONTOUR, last year. Nonetheless, the book offers a concise overview of FBC and how NASA has applied it over the last decade. As the pendulum starts to shift back towards larger missions at NASA (see “Space science gets big at NASA”, July 7, 2003) it’s worth learning how FBC can, and cannot, be applied.