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Message from the Chief Engineer
01.03.11
 

Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS)

Systems Engineering and Frugal Innovation


Lunar CRater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) "Frugal innovation" is a concept that has caught on in business circles in the last year or so. It typically refers to products that use existing technologies in radically simplified ways to make something new, robust, and affordable. An example that has received a lot of attention is Tata Motor's Nano car, which it has brought to market in India priced at $2,200. By rethinking the design of a car to focus on basic, no-frills transportation that will serve the needs of drivers in its market, Tata has made cars available to many who could never have purchased them before. There are many similar stories about rugged, low-cost cell phones, laptop computers, and medical devices.

LCROSS is a NASA example of frugal innovation. Given the opportunity to hitch a ride to the moon with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a team at Ames Research Center had 29 months and $79 million to design and build a spacecraft that would search for water on the moon. The spacecraft had to fit in the space available on the Atlas V launch vehicle, the schedule had to follow LRO, and the budget was firm—there was no money available for overruns.

In short, this was a design challenge that called for robust systems engineering. "The Art and Science of Systems Engineering," a white paper published by OCE in 2009, stated that systems engineering is first and foremost about getting the right design. The LCROSS team did this by using design principles that are common in frugal innovation. It repurposed an EELV Secondary Payload Adaptor (ESPA ring) and a Centaur upper stage. Its off-the-shelf payload instruments included imaging equipment found on Army tanks, carpet fiber recycling hardware, and instruments used to measure engine block temperatures for NASCAR.

The result was a spacecraft worthy of the 2010 System Engineering Excellence Award. The science it delivered has helped to change our understanding of the moon, earning it recognition as one of Time Magazine's Top 10 scientific discoveries of 2010.

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