Rapid Experiments vs. Big Upfront Planning

Nov 20, 2023 | Agile Values

What is better: An iterative approach with rapid experiments and lots of failures, or a cautious big upfront planning trying to sketch a perfect solution while avoiding risks?

While we Agile Coaches talk a lot about this topic, it helps to look at real world cases of these approaches. One such case are the different approaches of NASA and SpaceX.

NASA vs. SpaceX

The comparison between the development of NASA’s Space Shuttle programs and the commercial space initiatives of companies like SpaceX can gives us an interesting insights, how big upfront planning compares to rapid experimenting.

NASA, with its Space Shuttle program, long represented the pinnacle of space technology. Their approaches were characterized by extensive planning, rigorous testing, and a high degree of risk aversion. Although these methods led to remarkable successes, they were also very costly and time-consuming.

On the other hand, there is SpaceX, a company that pursues a radically different approach in space exploration. Under the leadership of Elon Musk, SpaceX focuses on rapid iterations, continuous experimentation, and the deliberate taking of risks. This approach initially led to a series of public failures, such as exploding rockets 💥. However, this approach also allowed SpaceX to learn quickly, rapidly improve their technologies, and develop more cost-effective solutions. 

“Even though that rocket costs a lot of money, what really costs a lot of money are people’s salaries,”

Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut &  senior advisor to SpaceX

Space Shuttle vs. Falcon 1

NASA’s Space Shuttle program, launched in the 1980s, was a milestone in space exploration. It was the first reusable spacecraft that carried out regular missions into space. The program was the result of years of careful planning and development and represented the pinnacle of space technology at that time. However, the costs of the Space Shuttle were very high, and the program was characterized by a conservative risk management philosophy.1

On the other hand, SpaceX began developing the Falcon 1 in the 2000s, the company’s first rocket. Unlike the Space Shuttle, SpaceX aimed to make space travel more cost-effective and efficient. The Falcon 1 experienced several failures in its early years. The first three flights failed, which was almost financially catastrophic for SpaceX.2

However, SpaceX used these failures as learning opportunities. Instead of being discouraged by these setbacks, the team analyzed the causes and worked quickly on improvements. The fourth flight of the Falcon 1 in September 2008 was finally successful and marked a turning point for the company.

“I think the benefit of this rapid development approach is even though things don’t look good at first, when things are blowing up – you learn so much and so quickly that you actually do converge on the correct solution much faster than if you try to get something 100% perfect the first time. […] SpaceX does seem to get there in the end.”

Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut &  senior advisor to SpaceX


The Falcon story shows how SpaceX’s willingness to take risks and learn from failures enabled the company to innovate quickly and develop cost-effective space technologies. In contrast, NASA’s Space Shuttle program, while technologically advanced, was also extremely costly and characterized by its caution.

These different approaches in space exploration reflect the contrast between a risk-ready, iterative development model and a more safety and detailed planning-oriented approach.

So, which is better?

While NASA had to act conservatively and risk-averse due to its public and political nature, SpaceX could be more risk-taking and flexible. These different approaches clearly show the contrast between a fixed, planning-intensive approach and a more flexible, iterative development model.

Cautious PlanningRisk-ready Iteration
No public failuresPublic failures
Slow improvementsRapid improvements
Extremely costlyCost-effective solutions
Slow pace of innovationInnovation

This story illustrates how different approaches in technology development – whether cautious planning or risk-ready iteration – have their own strengths and weaknesses, and how important it is to consider the context and objectives of the respective organizations.

  1. Image by NASA ↩︎
  2. Image CC BY-SA 3.0 by SpaceX ↩︎

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