May 21, 2003 

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Faster, Better, Cheaper?
July 17, 2000
Still going: Galileo.
image: NASA

When NASA decided to embrace a "faster, better, cheaper" methodology for conceiving and executing space missions, the idea was to decrease the time of designing, building and launching new spacecraft while holding down the typically staggering costs.

But in the wake of three Mars mission failures, scientists are reevaluating. And while NASA debates the merits of its "faster, better, cheaper" approach, older missions like Galileo are still functioning years after scientists predicted they would falter.

Can space missions be done on the cheap?

While some missions, like the spectacular Mars Pathfinder, met or exceeded designers’ expectations, others have been disastrous. In 1993, the Mars Observer was lost before it reached the Red Planet. The Mars Climate Observer (MCO) was lost on September 23, 1999, when a "high school" math error caused it to burn up in Mars’ atmosphere. And NASA simply lost contact with the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) in December 1999.

These failures are giving some scientists pause. Many are asking whether NASA is getting what it paid for.

One scientist who believes that the "faster, better, cheaper" methodology could be improved is William Boynton, a geochemist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Boynton has participated in different NASA missions, including the ill-fated MPL mission, for which he created a special thermally evolved gas analyzer (TEGA).

Galileo went through much more rigorous testing, but cost more as well.
image: NASA

"My view right now is that [NASA] erred too much on the side of faster and cheaper, and they really have to slow down a little bit and make them not quite so cheap," Boynton says. He feels that NASA erred when it cut back its legendary testing processes. "I think with more vigorous testing and another six months of testing after everything was built and put together, we probably would have added 10 or 20 percent to the cost of the mission, but it might have doubled reliability."

Guenther Riegler, director of NASA’s research program management division, notes, "We knew early on that we were increasing risks with the "faster is cheaper’’ philosophy, and mentally we had a 10 percent damage rate in mind.... The fact that [the missions] recently ended up closer to two out of three was not intended, and we’re going to fix that."

Riegler feels that better management and communication are the answers to improved reliability. "I see this as a stage for improving both how we work with each other, how we comunicate with each other," which should result in raising mission success rates, he says.

However, both researchers agree that the policy should be continued, and the National Academy of Sciences endorses the concept. And Boynton notes that the new policy enables more missions in a shorter time period, which allows students to participate in an entire mission.

Galileo—the mission that refuses to die

Facts on Galileo

"It was built in 1989 for $1.4 billion

"The craft has traveled more than 2.5 billion miles (4.044 billion kilometers)

"It has studied four of Jupiter’s moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto

"It has also observed Jupiter’s smaller satellites and asteroids on its journey

"Galileo observed the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter

Still, while NASA considers changes to the "faster, better, cheaper" policy, Galileo keeps on flying.

NASA launched the Galileo spacecraft in 1989, never imagining that it would still be operational eleven years later. "Galileo was originally designed for a two year survey," notes Riegler.

When Galileo continued to function after its expected lifespan ended, NASA extended the mission. "[NASA] added a two year extended mission, which we called the Galileo-Europe mission," says Riegler. "[Galileo] is continuing, producing excellent results. And my guess is it might continue for another two or three years."

Another intriguing fact: Galileo has endured more than three times the radiation dosage it was designed to withstand. "We’re at a point where we are curious how hardy this mission actually is," says Riegler.

Galileo’s next assignment is a joint mission with the last of NASA’s great "scientific battleship" multi-function missions, Cassini. This December, Cassini will ’slingshot’ around Jupiter to gain speed to travel to Saturn. Both Cassini and Galileo will analyze the radiation emanating from Jupiter and the solar wind coming from our Sun. Scientists hope to determine how much radiation comes from Jupiter and the quantity of radiation traveling from the Sun.

Galileo took this shot of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons.
image: NASA
Elsewhere on the web:

"Mars Climate Observer May Have Been Destroyed."

"UA scientists disappointed with Mars project, look toward future"

"The Martian Chronicle" NASA Mars Missions

Animations of Galileo’s Journey

Some images of Earth as seen by Galileo



by Debra Utacia Krol


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