NASA Mission Design Process

V. Hunter Adams (vha3), MAE 4160/5160, Spring 2020

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In this lecture . . .

  1. Brief Q/A regarding syllabus
  2. The phases, key decision points, and technical reviews of the space mission design process.
  3. Projects overview (during (2), above)

Sources and further reading

Brief syllabus overview/questions

  1. Any questions about the grading structure?
  2. If there are questions about the project, you may ask them, but I'm going to go over the project in much more detail this lecture.
  3. Any questions about expectations?

Why is learning the NASA project life cycle important?

Space missions are complicated. They are complicated both technically and logistically, and there are often a huge amount of stakeholders involved (a stakeholder being any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the mission's objectives). Complicated projects have the potential to snowball themselves, where small mistakes or miscommunications early-on manifest as massive costs later on. The more people involved, and the more complicated the objectives, the greater the risk.

In order to combat this, NASA has developed a project life cycle. That's what we're going to discuss today. You should care about this for a couple of reasons.

First of all, this class's project is modeled off of the project life cycle that I'm about to describe. So, to the extent that you care about the project, you should care about this content.

The other reason that you should care is that this process permeates the entire aerospace industry. If you go work at NASA, you'll obviously hear much of the vocabulary that we're about to go over thrown around. But, you'll also hear it if you go work for a prime contractor, or for the Air Force/Space Force, and even at sub-prime contractors. It's good to know the language of your industry. Familiarity with this process and the language used to describe it will improve your ability to communicate with your colleagues in aerospace.

Aerospace loves acronyms and initialisms, so get ready for a lot of those.

An overview of the process

The project life cycle categorizes everything that should be done to accomplish a project into distinct phases, and separates each of those phases by Key Decision Points (KDP's). Each of these KDP's is located at natural points for go/no-go decisions to be made by the decision authority. If a project passes a particular KDP, then it usually proceeds to the next one. If it does not, it may be allowed to try again after addressing deficiencies, or it may be terminated.

A project is divided into three broad stages, which are then sub-divided into phases. There is the pre-formulation stage, the formulation stage, and the implementation stage. We will walk through this process from beginning to end, and we'll take some time to go over the technical reviews associated with each phase.

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