Case Study: Producing a Breakthrough in Reducing the Cost of a Space Mission by 27%
Ivan Rosenberg
Ivan Rosenberg

The Starlight Mission at Jet Propulsion Laboratory


The StarLight mission was designed to demonstrate technologies that would, for the first time, be able to detect signatures of life on Earth-size planets orbiting nearby stars. The mission design called for two telescope spacecraft, stationed up to 100 meters apart, to simultaenously collect light and transmit it to a central third spacecraft that would process the data. To be able to detect an Earth-size planet near the relatively brighter light of a nearby star required precision formation flying of the three spacecraft to an accuracy 10 centimeters.

At the time when the team projected that it would barely be able to keep the cost of the mission within their $180M budget, they were notified that nearly a third of the total budget would not be available. All attempts to secure the missing $50M from other sources was unsuccessful. Redesigns all would fail to deliver the the science requirements.

It was predicable that in eight weeks, at the next briefing to NASA HQ, the Project Team would be unable to demonstrate that the mission objectives could be met within the $130M budget, and that the mission would be cancelled.


The Project Manager hired Frontier Associates (FAI) to employ FAI's unique Breakthrough Process to facilitate the project team coming up with a mission design that would meet both the new budgetary requirements and the original science requirements.


As a result of the Breakthrough Process, the team realized that all science objectives and the reduced budget could be met by a 2-spacecraft design, by placing the originally central third spacecraft on top of one of the telescopes and adding some standard data processing.

In fact, the new solution was in many ways better than the original design. It would deliver the same results but was less expensive and likely to be more reliable. In acknowledgment of their ingenious solution, the team received an award from JPL.

By making this breakthrough, the team developed a new view toward obstacles, and they’ve since produced many other major breakthroughs. As with the first, these breakthroughs resulted from “thinking outside the box” rather than from exhaustive testing and experimentation. In addition, the StarLight team now saw itself as capable of producing breakthroughs as needed to successfully overcome any obstacle to the commitment they had built.