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Faster, Better, Expendable

by B Dutts


One phase of space exploration requires the design of expensive spacecraft to carry the instruments of discovery into the universe. With few exceptions there is nothing that can be done to repair a spacecraft that suffers an electrical or mechanical failure after being put into space.

Large spacecraft can cost a billion dollars. The investment in man hours is huge; engineers, scientists, designers, and supporting staff can invest a quarter of their working lives on one project. When a large spacecraft fails the consequences are enormous.

Support for space exploration is eroded by failure. Joe citizen wonders, after spending so much money on building spacecraft, why are we having failures or ask the doctor, working in medical research, where the money could be better spent? Ask a social worker who spends her time in our city slums or the biologist working on developing disease resistant crops. Ask any of the under paid teachers in our public schools.

So a new policy was adopted as NASA’s Discovery program. Its mantra is faster, better, cheaper. Instead of putting a large number of instruments on a billion dollar spacecraft and risking a catastrophic failure, lets build six or seven smaller spacecraft for around 150 million apiece. The funding is still a billion dollars and the time frame is the same. However, the failure of one or more of these small spacecraft will not have the huge negative impact on public opinion as the failure of one large one. So engineers and others began greeting each other by saying, ‘Hey; faster, better, cheaper’.

Risk management says that a number of these smaller spacecraft will fail. Two, three, four, out of nine. Failure is inherent with the business. How many are expendable before adverse public opinion has a negative effect on funding? It's hard to say. One thing for sure; that there is nothing better to make Joe citizen forget about past spacecraft failures than to have one successful spacecraft mission .

In the faster, better, cheaper world, the word cheaper may be slightly disingenuous. A better mantra might be; faster, better, expendable. But how many spacecraft are expendable before public support for exploration disappears and our space program becomes virtually non-existent?

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