19 October 2009

Faster, Better, Cheaper?

I've been doing some research into NASA's Faster, Better, Cheaper initiate from the 1990's. It's quite a story, and I must admit I'm stumped as to why FBC got scrubbed.

The results of the FBC missions were fantastic. For less than the price of the Cassini mission, NASA launched 16 mission, including the Pathfinder mission to Mars and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), which no kidding, landed on an asteroid, after collecting 10 times more data than they'd expected. Of those 16 mission, only 10 succeeded, but that's still 10 successful missions for less than the price of a single planetary mission using the "traditional" Slower, Suckier, More Expensive approach (excuse me - I mean, the deliberate, modernist, Scientific Management approach, which never ever fails ever).

The crazy thing is, many people treat FBC as if it was not only a failure, but an embarrassing failure. As if NASA should have known better than to try something so absurd as reducing costs and delays in their pursuit of knowledge and adventure in space. As if 10 successes for the price of 1 is an inadequate track record. As if the data clearly shows we must "pick two," instead of pursuing simultaneous improvements in all three dimensions. I don't get it.

OK, I'm not really stumped. I have my theories about why the approach was rejected. But it's becoming increasingly clear that the rejection and ridicule of the FBC approach has nothing to do with the initiative's actual results, which were admirable and impressive.

How about you? What do you think when you hear the phrase "faster, better, cheaper"?


LookingUp said...

Faster, better, cheaper all sound great -- until there are lives at stake. People would rather spend more money and take more time to make sure that the product is safe than go before Congress and the nation to justify the loss of lives.

So the question in, how do you balance safety with speed/efficiency?

Additionally, NASA had successes, but the failures were high-profile projects. If FBC was going to succeed, it needed to prove itself with those projects. I agree with you, though, that NASA ditched the concept too soon. I also wonder if it needed to be gradually introduced to the workforce rather than implemented all at once.

Mark said...

I would think that improved safety falls under the umbrella of "Better"....?

Mike Burleson said...

Dan, I grew up after the Apollo missions. My experience of the Space Programs have been many successful robot probes like the Viking Mars lander, Hubble telescope, and the lackluster performance of the Space Shuttle. Like you, I was impressed by NASA's energetic approach to space travel in the 1990's under a much shrunken budget after the Cold War and a declining public interest. Let's fact it, it wasn't Star Trek which pushed our space program in the last century but the race to beat the Russians. I don't see the Chinese forcing a return to one of the greatest achievements in human history, not with so much focus today on earthly problems.

So I would like to see manned space ongoing if we go all out. Find a cost effective way for space stations, moon bases, and trips to Mars and the Planets.

Otherwise, no half-hearted efforts. Return to the more economical days of the 1990's, when we actually accomplished some things, but didn't break the bank. For school kids, the robot probes are fascinating stuff, and might teach us something new about the universe.

The Dan Ward said...

@LookingUp - Interesting observation. My impression is that FBC doesn't mean less safe or less reliable. In fact, by focusing on simplicity in both their technology and in their communication (& organizational structure), it turns out reliability & safety actually increases.

Now, NASA's FBC missions were all in the unmanned category. But I believe they did aim to apply at least some of the FBC mojo to manned missions...

@Mike - Thanks! I agree, if we're going to do this whole space exploration and adventure stuff, we should really do it. I think we could aim for the Moon or Mars, and our best bet would be to resurrect the FBC principles. It's amazing what NASA was able to do with those programs.

One quick example: The Pathfinder mission to Mars in the 90's cost 1/15th (that's 6.6%) of the Viking mission in the 70's. I think one of the reasons we waited 20 years to go back to Mars was that it cost so much and was so hard the first time.

Pathfinder was the first time NASA tried to put a rover on another planet. It was a huge success. And like I said, 1/15th the cost of Viking.

I'll have more to say about FBC in future posts, I'm sure.