Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?

On February 13, President Obama unveiled the proposed budget for NASA for the fiscal year 2013: $17.7 billion. That’s $59 million less than FY 2012, and a number that’s expected to remain constant over the next five years. Hardest hit was the Mars program, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of exploration on our cosmic neighbour. NASA has had great luck with creative and cost-efficient Martian missions in the past, so it’s possible that the next decade on Mars will be fruitful, it might also look different than anticipated. (Left, Mars’ atmosphere.)

The Budget

A $58 million budget cut isn’t in itself devastating. To get a real sense of the loss that comes with this figure, it’s necessary to look at what aspects of the agency are losing the most funding.

Some branches gained funding, such as Earth science, heliophysics (sun studies), space technology, space flight support networks, the International Space Station, exploration research and development, and construction of facilities. Other departments lost funding, like astrophysics, aeronautics, education (very unfortunately), and agency operations. In these cases, the change in funding is on average about $30 million; some changes were larger, but pale in comparison to the big winners and losers for the coming year. (Left, the JWST. Credit: ESA.)

The big success stories are the James Webb Space Telescope and Commercial Spaceflight. The JWST, Hubble’s perpetually over budget replacement, got a 21 percent increase to its budget as it readies for launch — funding rose from $518 to $627 million. Commercial spaceflight saw an even more impressive 104 percent increase from $406 million to $829 million.

These two substantial increases had to come from somewhere, and since NASA’s over all budget shrank, it clearly came from within. And it’s pretty clear the biggest victim was Mars. Martian exploration lost 21 percent of its 2012 funding, dropping from $1,510 million to $1,192 million.

The Effects

Last year, the National Research Council’s Committee on Planetary Science and NASA released an outline of planetary goals from 2012 to 2023. On Mars, the decadeal survey called for a launch every two years to take advantage of every possible launch window with a series of missions culminating in a sample return mission. (Left, an artist’s impression of the ExoMars payloads.)

In 2014, NASA was set to launch an orbiter to measure the escape rate of the planet’s atmosphere. 2016 and 2018 were to see the launch of the ExoMars mission, a joint venture with the European Space Agency. The first launch would send another orbiter and an ESA lander, and the second launch would send two rovers. This latter mission was to be the first phase of the sample return mission.

Cuts to the Martian funding have changed that exciting plan. NASA has been forced to withdraw from ExoMars, leaving the ESA to ask the Russian Space Agency to fill NASA’s shoes. (In light of Russia and the former Soviet Union’s history on Mars, this could end with the galactic ghoul haunting the ESA as well.) NASA, meanwhile, is hoping to take advantage of the 2018 launch window for some still undefined payload — the year will mark the closest distance between the two planets, a cosmic arrangement that comes once every fifteen years.

Can Faster and Cheaper be Better?

It’s a shame to cut the Mars budget with such exciting missions in the pipeline, but the reduced budget isn’t necessarily a death sentence for Martian exploration. NASA has done a lot with a little on Mars before. In the early 1990s, the space agency adopted the “faster, better, cheaper” approach to unmanned spaceflight. Mission costs were capped and held to strict time frames; projects that ran over budget were cancelled. (Right, the Earth as seen from Mars.)

The FBC approach is generally celebrated as a dark and unreliable era for NASA’s scientific exploration. Between 1992 an 1999, the agency pursued 16 projects under the FBC banner: five missions to Mars, one to the Moon, three space telescopes, two comet and asteroid rendezvous, four Earth-orbiting satellites, and one ion propulsion test vehicle. Ten of the 16 missions were successful, giving FBC an overall success rate of just 63 percent. Not a great average.

But looking at the FBC programs from a different perspective shows that the initiative might be one worth returning to. To cite only the 63 percent success rate is a poor indication of what FBC accomplished. All 16 missions cost less than the Cassini mission to Saturn for which NASA paid about $2.6 billion. That’s 16 smaller and less complex missions for the cost of one traditional mission. (Left, an artist’s impression of the Mars Polar Lander.)

The five missions to Mars were: the Mars Global Surveyor that launched in 1996, a striking success that returned more images than any previous mission; Mars Pathfinder, also launched in 1996, was another great success that delivered the first rover, Sojourner, to the Martian surface; the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998; the Mars Polar Lander in 1999; and two Deep Space 2 probes in 1999.

The last three missions were all failures, lost on arrival at Mars. But they weren’t lost because of FBC constraints, they were the product of poor communications and mistakes at engineering and managerial levels. MCO was lost because its onboard computer used metric units and the ground crew monitoring the mission used imperial units — the spacecraft entered the atmosphere at such a steep an angle that it burned up before reaching the ground. MPL was doomed by a similarly unfortunate error. Code designed to protect the lander from a premature shutdown failed and a false signal caused the lander to fall and crash to the surface. The Deep Space 2 probes were part of the MPL mission. (Right, an artist’s impression of the Mars Climate Orbiter)

These types of mistakes are just as common in traditional missions. Failure of communications between NASA and contractor North American Aviation played a large role in the Apollo 1 fire — the contractor knew of the dangers of the plugs out test but the agency pressed on to keep to the lunar landing schedule (and the Apollo program is probably the farthest NASA has even been from a FBC approach to spaceflight). A similar failure of communications was a central factor in the Challenger disaster.

Problems arose under the FBC banner when project leaders reduced the cost and tightened the schedule of a mission without simplifying it. The programs that were successful were simple, both technically and organizationally. Clear management of straightforward technology allowed the missions to fly on time and under budget. As Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder demonstrated, it’s possible to get great results within these constraints. (Left, Sojourner on Mars.)

The Next Decade on Mars

When you break down what FBC accomplished per dollar, the missions become much more impressive. 16 missions for the price of one is good bang for your buck, even with six failures. Mars Pathfinder cost one-fifteenth of what Viking cost; in 1997 dollars, the two Viking landers cost $3.5 billion while Pathfinder cost under $150 million and it moved around the surface. Pathfinder was a simpler mission with a very basic rover that returned a wealth of data. Simplicity was not a necessary aspect of FBC mission, but was clearly present in the successful missions. (Right, a Viking landers)

So in light of the newly reduced budget for Martian exploration, might it be prudent for NASA to return to an FBC approach to unmanned exploration? The Mars Science Laboratory’s rover Curiosity is the most sophisticated payload ever sent to the red planet and the most expensive with a price tag of $2.5 billion. If everything works with the complicated Sky Crane landing system in August, NASA’s sure to get a lot for its money with this mission, but it can’t follow up with the same sophistication.

A series of smaller, simpler, and specific missions, however, could be a good way to follow up from Curiosity over the next decade. Some have suggested that NASA retrofit Curiosity with the capacity to gather and store Martian samples — one launch could deliver the necessary hardware and a second could collect and return the samples. This would, in theory, be done with a pair of simple and straightforward missions that could fall under the FBC banner. (This artist’s impression shows Curiosity dwarfs the MER rovers Spirit and Opportunity.)

Instead of building increasingly large and complex rovers, the budget cuts could open the door for creativity and clever problem solving, inspired missions that turn a budget loss into science gain with simpler missions with singular goals. Rather than an era of stagnation, the next decade could see amazing development with mission planners thinking outside the box. (Right, the view from the Viking 2 lander. 1976.)

But I don’t work for NASA, and I don’t know the intricacies involved with planning and sending a mission to Mars. We’ll have to wait and see what the agency does within its new limitations. Hopefully, creativity will prevail.

Suggested Reading

NASA’s 2013 budget breakdown.

Faster, Better, Cheaper Revisited by Lt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF.

Faster, Better, Cheaper by Howard E. McCurdy. Johns Hopkins. 2001.

20 thoughts on “Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?

  1. Amy:

    It was a failed experiment in that it didn’t subsidize NASA centers and contractors to the extent they would have liked.

    I don’t think the 63% is especially useful. Just so there’s no confusion, can you list the missions you lumped together to reach that figure?


  2. The best way to explore Mars is to set up a permanently manned base on the Martian surface. Then both people and human operated machines can be used to thoroughly explore the entire Martian surface.

    The best way to achieve this goal is to focus our efforts on exploiting the probable water resources on the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos. We can then utilize these moons and their resources as a gateway to the Martian surface. The delta-v budget to the surface of Deimos from LEO is only slightly larger than the delta-v budget from LEO to the lunar surface.

    If reusable tankers and light sails were utilized to transport water from Deimos back to the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, Deimos could almost immediately become an economic resource for supplying fuel for space depots for space tourism and water for drinking and for manufacturing air for orbiting commercial space hotels. So Mars orbit could already have economic value even before humans landed on the surface and might even be a way to finance the the human exploration and settlement of Mars.

    Marcel F. Williams

    1. Marcel:

      This is all fantasy stuff when we can’t even do an automated Mars Sample Return or keep to our commitments to other countries. I don’t doubt that it’s possible from an engineering standpoint (and, like you, I like Phobos and Deimos), but from a political, economic, and societal standpoint, it’s irrelevant to the issue at hand. Should we try to do more with less? I think the answer is yes. A low-cost automated Phobos/Deimos mission would fit into the more-with-less mind-set, and constitute an early step toward your vision.


      1. Personally, I think there has been too much money spent on Mars and too little spent on exploring the surface of the lunar poles and the surface Phobos and Deimos. During these hard economic times, we should be focusing our space efforts on places that have long term economic value.

        Marcel F. Williams

  3. Amy:

    One reason I’m interested in a list of the missions you considered when you came up with your 63% figure is, Faster-Better-Cheaper has not ended. New Horizons is an FBC mission, for example, and it hasn’t even reached its target yet.


    1. If you look at the “Suggested Reading” links, it seems that the 63% is from the
      “Faster, Better, Cheaper Revisited” by Lt. Col. Dan Ward.
      Unfortunately he doesn’t list the missions.

      But regardless of the percentage of success’s or failures for FBC,
      it was just a catchphrase, not really a clear and strategic method
      of working. Anything that made the mission “cheaper” was the method.
      If its “faster” then that automatically made it cheaper.
      “Better” isn’t really quantifiable because its subjective and relies on opinion.

      At its core it was just a realistic and necessary ploy to cut costs.
      Its principle tenet was “Cheaper”. The Better and Faster
      were just there so that the word ‘cheaper’ didn’t look so bad by itself.

      It can be seen as a kind of Brand marketing to sell the idea that
      NASA can’t afford missions like it used to.

      I feel sure that the essential aims of FBC will live on under the next
      rhetorical motto or adage NASA uses to cut costs in the future.

      1. Mark:

        I have to disagree with some of what you say. I was working at NASA during FBC’s early days. It really was a philosophy, though one that was misunderstood by many. For example, calling the Deep Space 2 penetrators a failure – Deep Space was about technology demonstration to lower the cost of future missions. Tech development has never been easy for NASA to justify, however, so science got hung all over the DS missions. Because the science failed, the mission was seen as a failure, and DS ended. But in terms of tech demonstration, the mission was a success – it showed that the penetrator technique under test needed work. At one time, NASA would have flown another test with modifications, but the wisdom of that seems to be hard to convey these days.

        I agree that it was about cutting costs, but the real motive behind it was to enable missions. FBC was a response to the loss of Mars Observer, the mission that was supposed to be cheap but wasn’t (and blew up, to add insult to injury). It was based on an Earth satellite to cut costs but as is typical its cost got out of control (partly, it must be admitted, because it was bumped from its planned Shuttle launch in 1990 to an ELV launch in 1992 after Challenger). NASA Ames deserves a lot of credit for FBC – their MESUR network plan was the first realistic plan for application of SDI technology in the civilian space program. SDI never yielded a missile defense, but seen as a tech development program it was a great success, yielding many technologies that found their way into the whole NASA program.

        Faster was a critical component, the same as cheaper. The average time for a mission from concept to data arrival was something like 20 years by the mid-1990s, partly because of Shuttle troubles and cost overruns (which ate the planetary program’s lunch) and partly because of institutional issues at JPL. JPL never liked FBC and didn’t work very hard to make it work; only the advent of serious competition (APL, for example) got them in harness. They were more than delighted to allow MSL to bloat, all the while proclaiming that the scientists wanted all that stuff (most scientists I know who are involved in MSL felt that they’d been taken hostage). FBC yielded a rapid series of missions, all of which contributed meaningful science data.

        In that sense, FBC was better. Data in hand is worth two monster spacecraft on the drawing boards. Or something like that.

        I think that without a list of missions, the 63% figure is worthless. There were some important failures – I remember vividly the look on the face of one of my comet-exploring friends when CONTOUR broke up – but there were many successes. More than 63%, I should think, unless one cooks the numbers..


  4. Mark:

    I meant to add that MESUR was transferred to JPL and became Pathfinder/Sojourner, the early FBC poster child. Pathfinder was originally meant to be the tech development mission for MESUR network. JPL built it bigger than necessary for that purpose so it could put the rover on board – rovers have been a JPL institutional preference since the 1970s, and they’ve made every effort to bias their program to support rovers. MRO, for example, had its genesis as a traverse-route selection orbiter in the 1980s.


    1. The problem with FBC is that it is a catchphrase that is often touted as a method.
      Many different methods are lumped under the banner of FBC, but of itself, FBC is not an intrinsically definable procedure.

      When people say that FBC was a failure and was cancelled, to me its like saying
      I tried do do things cheaply and I failed, therefore I should stop trying to do things cheaply. Then continue to do things cheaply but call it Thrifty.

      Doing things cheaply isn’t a clear mechanism, its just a broad inclination that doesn’t tell us anything about the methods used.

      From my understanding, many differing methods were used under the banner of FBC
      some good, some not so good but the methods themselves need to be reviewed separately and assessed on their own merits. It doesn’t make sense to lump them all under FBC and decide it doesn’t work so it all needs to be cancelled or reinstated.

      Its the methods themsleves that need to be talked about and evaluated not the Catchphrase.

      FBC may be a good term to use as an historical marker for Dan Goldins Policies while at NASA but I believe its too ambiguous and broad to be a useful as a procedural understanding.

      1. Mark:

        I object to the term “catchphrase,” however, as it would seem to trivialize FBC. Given the explosion of planetary science data the policy yielded, it does not deserve to be trivialized, even if it cannot be rigidly defined.

        The difficulty, I think, is in trying to define its methodology rigidly in a complex aerospace world that includes many rival centers, contractors, and continually shifting external policy and economic influences. In fact, I don’t think it can be done except on a case by case basis, and thus any procedures we observe will not necessarily have universal application. Just because something is ambiguous doesn’t mean it isn’t real and functional (and even successful).

        I think that the Discovery Program, now in its 20th year, is the most “uniform” of the FBC efforts, but even that does not easily admit a universal methodology. It might be the place to start, however, if one thinks the developing such a methodology is a useful exercise. I for one do not.

        It boils down to this (I’ll pretend to be Dan Goldin here): We all want data. But I can’t give you the billions you expect. Instead, what you are going to do is get creative. Assuming a budget equal to about 10% of what you spent on Galileo, you’re going to give me a long list of missions that you can do on that budget. We’ll pick the one or two that we think deliver the most bang for buck and can actually be accomplished on that budget. Then we’ll build and launch them in a time sensibly measured in months, not years (or decades).

        The outpouring of mission proposals at the 1992 Discovery Program workshop was phenomenal – something like 80 mission proposal, most quite realistic given the constraints. NASA was caught off guard, truth be told, by the magnitude of the response. In that list can be found nearly all of the Discovery missions than have since flown.

        I should add here that FBC yielded rapid growth of the planetary science community. Just one example – when I started attending the Lunar and Planetary Science conference in 1993, perhaps 150 people attended. 19 years on, attendance has soared to more than 10 times that figure. The conference is completely different in nature and scope. That large number of attendees represents a sample of a constituency that has helped to ensure the continued development of new missions.

        Obviously this is something we should continue (we never stopped) even if we cannot rigidly define it.


  5. David

    I agree with you.
    I am not against FBC, I am very much in favour of it.
    What I am debating is how it has been ill defined.

    FBC is just another way of saying NASA needs to do things more efficiently.
    Efficiency is not something you consider cancelling.
    Its a goal that should always be there, and as you say “never stopped”.
    I think its important to understand that some people are confusing the goal with the methods.
    A series of bad methods doesn’t mean the goal is bad, just that other methods need to be tried to achieve that goal.

    When people say FBC was cancelled its like saying the goal of efficiency was cancelled.
    Sure discontinue the methods that don’t work but not the mandate for improving things.

    By the way, I did not use the word Catchphrase to trivialize FBC.
    My definition of the word catchphrase is not derogatory but expresses the fact that the FBC
    was used like a motto ‘meant to catch in the mind’ and be easily remembered.
    If using a motto trivializes it, then that’s Dan Goldins fault not mine.

  6. Mark:

    I think we agree on most things. One point I’d like to make, then I’ll leave it be. Efficiency is not a given within NASA or its contractors (JPL is a contractor, as I’m sure you are aware). NASA is seen by most in Congress as a jobs program, not a space program. This encourages development of big, costly missions. A bigger pie means bigger and more pieces for everyone. FBC was revolutionary in that it placed acquisition of data from space ahead of money distributed to Congressional districts.

    I remember when the Discovery Program got rolling, someone said it wouldn’t last because it wouldn’t throw enough funds around to be of interest to the politicos. I think that instead it became a poster child for efficiency (as measured by bang for buck) that NASA and its backers in Congress could point to while Space Shuttle and Space Station costs spiraled out of control.

    I don’t think you *can* define Faster-Better-Cheaper, and I don’t think we need to. It means different things to different constituencies. Perhaps a manager or an engineer would want to strictly define it, and good luck to them, but FBC was only partly about engineering and management, as I’ve explained. It might even be easier to point out examples of missions that are *not* FBC. MSL can be considered the robotic poster child for *not FBC.* ISS would be the *not FBC* poster child on the piloted side, of course.


  7. Marcel:

    I missed your response. The trouble is, *nothing* in space has long-term economic value. There is no commodity in space that is worth the cost of developing it. One can low-ball cost estimates and pretend that economics work differently than they do (the latter being one of the several problems with the so-called “private” space companies), but in the end reality wins. For now, and for the foreseeable future, spaceflight will depend for its justifications on scientific merit, domestic and international politics, and inertia, just as it always has. Those sources of justification are, by the way, in approximate reverse order of importance.

    If you expect and require that everything we do in space have some economic value that stems from conditions peculiar to space itself, then our space program will be very small. If you see it as a magnificent place chock-full of knowledge and inspiration, on the other hand, then the combined space programs of planet Earth are nowhere near big enough.

    Teach people to love the strange and new, and you’ll have no problem getting them to fund a magnificent space program, for space is the ultimate source of novelty. Teach them that profit is the purpose of all things, and our presence in space will remain small-scale.


  8. David

    Yes I agree that “Efficiency is not a given”,
    and that is why FBC should be retained, its important as a continuing goal.

    The 3 words Faster, Better, Cheaper are useful as a managerial focus on 3 things that usually helps attain the aim of efficiency.
    Especially now when budgets are decreasing, efficiency becomes more crucial.

  9. Hi folks – Dan Ward here (the guy who wrote the FBC – Revisited article Amy referenced). I just heard about this post and wanted to pass along my compliments. Very nicely done!

    I got a lot of my info from McCurdy’s excellent book (which Amy also listed). I didn’t name the 16 FBC missions in my article because lists are boring in a short piece like that, but McCurdy lists them in his book. It’s worth noting that the NASA Inspector General report says there were 25 FBC missions, of which 19 were successful – that comes to a 76% success rate (still too low apparently). So there’s agreement on the 6 failed missions, but unfortunately the IG didn’t give a whole list of their 25. I used the smaller, more conservative number in my article… and then argued it’s the wrong calculation to make in the first place. 🙂

    As some of the comments mentioned, FBC was so much more than a slogan. Check out a paper titled 99 Rules for FBC Projects by Drs Hoffman and Laufer to see some of the deep practices that made up the core of the FBC concept. Google can get you a copy.

    And McCurdy points out that the failed FBC projects were generally the ones which did not “institute the full scope of techniques” and instead reverting to slower, more complex, more expensive management and engineering approaches while still waving the FBC flag. So, FBC didn’t work when it was treated like a powerpoint slogan. Big surprise, right?

    Anyway, great post and great discussion afterwards!

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