Faster, NASA, Faster

In Silicon Valley we have a saying: launch early, launch often. It’s an acknowledgment that successful, innovative companies are the ones that rapidly try new ideas, see what works, improve their products and repeat. Businesses that launch frequently are also able to take advantage of economies of scale to make launchings faster and easier. In many ways, the key to innovation is speed of execution.

NASA, an agency that depends on innovation, could benefit from the same mindset. To meet its new goals for human spaceflight, NASA must be able to be creative and take risks, or else it will be unable to adapt to new technology and changing political realities. Grand plans stretching over decades will become irrelevant and eventually collapse.

In the 12 years before I left NASA in 2007, we averaged about four space shuttle launchings per year. We had periods when the rate was even lower: in the late ’90s, during the early construction phase of the International Space Station, and in 2003, in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. I saw firsthand the harm that low launching rates do to innovation.

With precious few flights, every available opportunity to test new equipment or run scientific investigations was filled for years into the future, and this discouraged engineers from trying out new ideas. Without actual flight test data on, for example, prototypes for new life-support equipment, management was forced to substitute analysis for real engineering experience.

As operations slowed, morale dropped and proficiency in mission control, hardware handling and other operations all declined. The space shuttle is a magnificent machine, but it is so expensive and difficult to maintain that most of NASA’s effort was aimed at simply getting things up, so there were few resources left for actually exploring space. Imagine how different it would have been if we had had regular weekly launchings!

There is an important distinction to be made between the launching system (the rocket), and the spacecraft and payload (scientific instruments, experiments, people and so on) that it carries. In planning for spaceflight, the goal should be to make the launching system as robust as possible, and then launch rockets frequently so you can experiment and improve on the spacecraft and payloads that carry out missions.

I recognize that NASA cannot push a system to launch more frequently than it is capable of, because this could mean overrunning the budget or, worse, cutting corners on safety. Instead, future systems should be designed so that they can be rapidly prepared for launching by small teams.

This would not only increase NASA’s ability to send up innovative payloads but also make launching systems more reliable. After all, the more a rocket is flown, the better it can be understood and the safer it becomes. Frequent launchings would also reduce costs per flight in the long run.

This strategy does have a downside: Given the reality of fixed budgets, a requirement to launch frequently would push designers to create smaller rockets. So any large spacecraft would need to be assembled and fueled in space, rather than on the ground. But if the flight rate is high and the launching system is robust, then such complications could be overcome. If, on the other hand, NASA is able to launch rockets only a few times a year, it will be difficult to maintain the innovation needed to sustain any long-term program.

The Russian Soyuz rocket demonstrates the value of frequent launching. Variants of this rocket have flown more than 1,700 times, averaging more than 30 launchings a year. As a result, the Soyuz is among the most reliable of all existing rockets. In fact, I flew into space aboard a Soyuz rocket in 2003 when NASA space shuttles had been grounded after the Columbia disaster.

There is no reason American companies could not build a similar, but modernized, medium-sized, economical workhorse of a rocket that is simple enough to sustain frequent launching. If NASA were to promise to buy one such rocket a week, the manufacturers could also profitably sell copies for launching commercial spacecraft and satellites — at much lower than current prices — and this would spur the development of space-based industries in fields like telecommunications, earth imaging and even space tourism.

To maintain a vibrant, innovative program, NASA needs to step up the rate of rocket launchings. It should set a requirement that any new launching system fly once a week, then put out contracts for private companies to design and build rockets that can operate this frequently. By launching early and launching often, NASA could get back in the business of exploring space.

Edward Lu, a former astronaut and the program manager for advanced projects at Google.