Thinking small

By: 
September 09, 1996

Small is beautiful--and familiar. That axiom is proving its validity in
much of the development coming out of today's restructured aerospace industry.
The size and costs of projects have shrunk--and so have the bureaucracies that
oversee them. The result: Industry is proving that it can do much more than many
thought with smaller budgets.

NASA's Small Satellite Technology Initiative (SSTI) is a good example. The new Lewis and Clark satellites, the first to be built under the program, will carry groundbreaking payloads when they launch later this year. Engineers completed the Lewis project in two years, a remarkable feat. And now that they have established the basic procedures, they'll probably be able to cut the already bargain-basement price of $64 million for future craft.

And, speaking of bargain-basement prices, a NASA-McDonnell Douglas team designed and built theX-36 demonstrator in slightly over two years for just $17 million. No simple, routine project, it incorporates some breakthrough technology, such as a classified thrust-vectoring system and split-aileron control surfaces.

Maybe one reason aerospace engineers are producing so well under the lean-and-mean philosophy is that it's really not new. Yes, a few years back the sky was the limit on budgets. Economics dictated a change, but many of the procedures that resulted seem familiar. The fact is, lean and mean has been around awhile. The legendary Kelly Johnson employed a version of the concept years ago in the original Skunk Works project. It shows up today in hundreds of companies under different monikers, such as the Phantom Works at McDonnell Douglas.

America, of course, hasn't lost the ability to do the big projects. Far from it. The Cassini spacecraft's propulsion system, being developed by JPL and Lockheed Martin Astronautics, and said to be the most complex such system ever, certainly proves that.

But if the future in aerospace and other fields, at least in the short term, belongs to those who can thrive in a lean-and-mean environment, at least it's a future we know. And aerospace engineers are doing what they have always done: showing others the way.

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