The end of the Moon Shot – Even for Moon Shots

disruptive innovation in space travel puts SpaceX ahead of NASA

Even moon shots aren’t what they used to be. Cheaper, faster, lighter wins the day today.

Back in the good old days – the 60s and 70s and 80s – the gold standard for any endeavor was NASA’s Apollo moon program. And why not? After all, less than 10 years after President John Kennedy challenged the nation to send a man to the moon, NASA did it. That sort of drive and technical prowess cemented America’s place as Most Awesomest Nation Ever.

And that sort of engineering siege mentality – armed with slide rules, mainframe computers and heaps of money instead of trebuchets and battering rams – became the way anyone bent on success did things. Assemble a huge team of all-stars to create the perfect plan, break the task into thousands of minute steps, plug all those steps and people into a gigantic workflow chart, grind away at it until you reach the end of your flow chart, and voila: the final product emerges, just as envisioned at the start. It was the apotheosis of the assembly-line manufacturing model.

And then something happened. Suddenly, reality stopped cooperating. The world sped up so much that it became difficult to predict conditions in the future, and nearly impossible to foresee all the factors that would affect any endeavor. Just ask Blackberry what happened to its many tries at the latest, greatest smart phone. Or ask NASA itself. Not only was the agency forced to do more with less as budgets declined, but even doing more with more didn’t always turn out so well: witness the 1999 Mars orbiter crash caused by confusion between metric vs. English distance units. Whoops – there goes $125 million of custom-made parts, bespoke software and specialized mission control.

Contrast that with India’s successful mission to Mars earlier this year – at $74 million it was the cheapest interplanetary mission ever. And it worked just fine, thank you very much.

Today, getting a fast start, leveraging existing resources (whether knowledge, software libraries or off-the-shelf parts), failing fast and iterating based on experience is the way to play the game.

And the best illustration of this is once again America’s space program: SpaceX, Elon Musk’s ambitious space launch startup, has just won a NASA contract to send humans to the International Space Station for $2.6 billion – almost half the cost of the identical contract awarded to the legacy moon shot team headed by Boeing.

What’s the difference? SpaceX looks at its program the same way software engineers or internet entrepreneurs look at their work: as innovation projects based on rapid prototyping and iteration; Boeing is still in the moon shot business, working relentlessly to develop the perfect plan and then execute flawlessly to get it right the first time. Here’s how Quartz describes the essential difference:

“SpaceX always thought of itself as a tech firm, and its clashes with NASA often took a form computer developers—or anyone familiar with the troubled roll-out of—would recognize as generational. SpaceX followed an iterative design process, continually improving prototypes in response to testing. Traditional product management calls for a robust plan executed to completion, a recipe for cost overruns.

“’We weren’t just going to sit there and analyze something for years and years and years and years to the nth degree,’ said David Giger, a SpaceX engineer. ‘SpaceX was built on ‘test, test, test, test, test.’ We test as we fly. We always say that every day here, ‘Test as you fly.’”

Test as you fly: that’s the new model for success in a disruptive economy where everything – from suppliers to consumer tastes – changes too quickly to accurately predict at the outset. Learning as you go, rather than knowing everything before you start, is a much more effective strategy for a fast-moving economy.