Thinking Small: NDRI Pentagon Theme Day Focuses on Best Practices in Unmanned Spacecraft Development

On May 31, 2001, RAND analyst Liam Sarsfield presented the Pentagon with a summary of research into recent trends in the development of space systems, with an emphasis on the reemergence of small spacecraft, new development practices, and experiences with recent missions. The objective of the study that Sarsfield described to the Pentagon was to evaluate practices that can speed the development of space systems and to assess how recent failures have influenced future plans.

Why Study Small Spacecraft?

The National Reconnaissance Office asked RAND to focus on small spacecraft missions for many reasons:

  • The greatest experimentation is taking place in this area;
  • As technology improves, small spacecraft will evolve to perform primary mission roles;
  • The root cause of failure in many small missions point to systemic problems;
  • Small missions serve as "trailblazer" platforms to demonstrate new techniques, test new technology, train staff, and inculcate cultural change;
  • They represent the higher risk element of an overall mission portfolio and are an essential ingredient for assuring high returns.

Are Today's Missions Really Faster and Cheaper?

Researchers took a broad look at some of the initiatives that have been undertaken to reduce the cost and increase the performance of spacecraft. Their findings suggest that smaller spacecraft provide government and commercial firms with flexible options for meeting mission needs quickly and effectively.

Beyond their intrinsic value, however, small systems remain very complex and for this reason incur a premium price. Additionally, many of the initiatives to streamline the management and engineering of space systems have actually increased risk disproportionately to savings.

A Closer Look at Success and Failures

Researchers examined both successful and failed recent missions. They found fourteen reasons for failures. The top five reasons were:

  • Combined high risk with aggressive cost.
  • Underestimating complexity. Researchers found that, in the environment of small spacecraft, complexity becomes a main cost driver and should be carefully evaluated and monitored by management.
  • Underestimating the risk of new technologies. With new technologies, the risk that the mission will fail due to technical difficulties may be low; however, cost and schedule risks may rise.
  • Inappropriate program risk goals.
  • Unmeasured process reduction.


The researchers recommended certain initiatives that promise to increase performance and reduce cost and risk. A few of their recommendations are listed below:

  • Risk management should be made a high priority. Researchers frequently found that failed missions suffered the lack of a formal and rigorous risk management plan. In addition, risk management is often done at the end of a program, when faults occur. An effective risk management plan should be implemented from the beginning of the project.
  • Commitment to a mission should not be rushed. Many projects suffer from a premature commitment to design. Researchers recommend that, for small, cost-constrained projects, that in the early conceptual phase, design effort be emphasized. Senior personnel should be in abundance during this phase.
  • When possible, employ smaller teams. The performance of individuals on smaller teams is less variable, and smaller teams tend to be more effective and make fewer mistakes.
  • Use caution when applying Acquisition Reform methods to space. Certain concepts that might apply to other sectors have limitations in the aerospace sector.

Sarsfield also discussed how improved measurement of technological readiness could be applied to programs of all sizes to reduce risk and increase the likelihood of meeting cost and schedule targets. In general, the study concluded that efforts to trim cost and schedule from spacecraft projects must be enacted with great care.