Case study: Producing a Breakthrough in Reducing the Cost of a Space Mission by 30%
Ivan Rosenberg
Ivan Rosenberg

A $200M robotic space mission


A robotic space mission was projected to be 30% over budget and 18% over weight. After two years of design, the projection should have been at least 30% under budget to allow for contingency. Since inception, the project team had consistently worked to reduce overruns. Despite their best efforts, the projected final cost and weight continued to rise, not fall.

On a Friday afternoon the Project Manager received a fax from NASA instructing the project to halt all procurement. It further directed the Project Manager to appear at NASA HQ within four weeks with an acceptable strategy for finding ways to eliminate the budget and weight overruns without reducing mission science deliverables.

The project team had to develop a strategy for finding solutions to the budget and weight overruns sufficiently feasible for NASA to permit the project to continue. The strategy had to be ready for presentation to NASA within four weeks.

Continued application of the well known but unsuccessful methods the team had been trying for the past two years was unlikely to work. To produce a breakthrough, something new was needed, which required “thinking out of the box.”


Frontier Associates was called the next day to help with a planned Monday meeting to announce and come up with a solution. We recommended that the project team use Frontier Associates' Breakthrough Process, and coached the Project Manager regarding the meeting.

After the 25-member project team had gathered. Fred read the fax from NASA and suggested the goals for the meeting. He also clearly expressed his belief that a breakthrough solution could be found and that this team was capable of finding it. He explained the team would use a process, facilitiated by a Frontier Associates' consultant, that would enable the team to produce the breakthrough it needed.

By the end of Monday’s meeting 19 flipcharts full of possibilities surrounded the room. The possibilities were grouped into nine categories, each of which was taken on for further investigation by a sub-team.

After we provided guidelines for the remainder of the solution process, the group was able to proceed on its own. By the end of the week they had generated the outlines of a feasible response.


At the NASA HQ review, rather than just presenting how his team would go about solving the problem, the Project Manager proudly delivered the solution itself. In just four weeks the team had created an entirely new approach to the mission, one with a high probability of meeting budget and weight requirements. The detail level in Fred’s presentation was far beyond conceptual and almost comparable to that of the original approach, suggesting that little time would be lost in switching to the new approach.

The chairman of the NASA HQ review board wrote a letter to the project team in which he called their swift development of the solution a “miracle.” He added that of all the presentations the board had heard, their’s was one of only a few that had exceeded the board’s expectations.