A Platform Approach to Space Exploration

The traditional approach to space exploration is to treat each project, meaning each rocket launch, as a one-off customized megaproject. NASA provides the classic example of this approach. It treats each launch as a big, one-off, bespoke investment — trying to deliver a “quantum leap” or “big bang.” Donna Shirley, a manager on NASA’s Pathfinder mission, describes them as “magnificent mission[s] in the grand old style.”

The problem with that approach is that the various missions are constructed independently from each other. Components and systems are not updated and transferred from one project to the next — they are instead re-imagined.

The result is illustrated by the Mars Observer mission, launched in September 1992. With a 17-year planning and development cycle and a cost of over $1.3 billion in 2000 prices, it was slow to market and costly. On August 21, 1993, three days before the spacecraft was set to fire its main rocket engines and…

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This article was written by Atif Ansar and originally published on hbr.org