The value of failing now and then

As someone who reported on space exploration during NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” era in the 1990s, it’s startling to witness the concept being surfaced under a different name 25 years later, this time by Mars scientists and engineers, as Leonard David reports in our cover story.

In the ’90s, some scientists were piqued when a caustic businessman-turned NASA administrator named Dan Goldin began pushing a strategy for smaller, higher-risk missions alongside his effort to expunge the redundancies he saw among the agency’s field centers. There was heartburn, to say the least. A very specific rumor began to swirl at some point in the mid ’90s that Goldin was preparing to resign. I ended up interviewing the administrator in his office, and when I asked about the rumor, he told me he wasn’t going anywhere, and indeed he stayed some six more years.

This time, if the NASA leadership decides to adopt the newly proposed “Frequent, Affordable, Bold” strategy, I doubt the idea will stir that degree of emotion. It’s a grassroots proposal that sprang from Mars workshops hosted last year by the Keck Institute for Space Studies in California. Advocates also are not gunning to make all NASA science missions meet their FAB criteria, nor even all Mars missions. They want a new class of small landers, rovers and fliers to be added on top of the Mars Sample Return mission that the European Space Agency and NASA plan to carry out in multiple steps through 2031.

Who could complain about that? Well, Mars is not the only interesting body in the solar system. Scientists who research other planets or moons might argue: Mars scientists chose to put their faith and dollars in a sample return mission, so now they must lay in that budgetary bed. Spirited, if not emotional, debate seems likely.

Of course, we might not learn the answer to the most fundamental question for years, which is whether FAB is a stroke of genius or something less. Absent a stunning breakthrough, like finding microbes or fossils, I suspect opinions will always vary. That’s because sending less costly spacecraft to daring locations will inevitably result in some failures. That should be viewed as evidence of a well-thought out program. Here’s how planetary scientist Elizabeth Frank explains this irony in an email: “The trick about failure is that if you’re going to be risk-tolerant, you should fail because you were pushing the edge of technical capability.” She is chief scientist at the First Mode engineering firm in Seattle and participated in the September workshop where the term FAB was coined. For an in-depth look at FBC, I recommend reading her blog article from 2019 , “Faster, Better, Cheaper: A maligned era of NASA’s history.”

The irony that failure can be evidence of wisdom is a hard one to grasp, and inevitably not everyone will. The circumstances matter: A mix up over unit of measures, like the one that sent the Mars Climate Orbiter plunging into the Martian atmosphere in 1999,  is not the same as losing a spacecraft because you dared to explore a dark ravine without redundant components. In some eyes, all failures are equal, and that might be FAB’s biggest hurdle. 

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Ben Iannotta

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

The value of failing now and then