The history of CubeSats can be traced back to the NASA "Faster, Better, Cheaper" program of the 1990s, which postulated that more science could be done with smaller missions. These involved small teams, fewer formal checks and a commitment to use commercial microelectronics to keep launch costs down.
It led to successes such as Mars Pathfinder, which touched down safely with its Sojourner rover in 1997. But it also was criticized for not having enough checks and balances in place to save the Mars Polar Lander or Mars Climate Orbiter, which both died upon arrival later that decade.
"My personal opinion is it has been very successful," Staehle said, pointing out that the idea of doing more with less has persisted even 20 years later. "We used to have two planetary missions a decade, and some years we now have two a year."
He argues, however, that there is a role for both cheap and big missions in the coming decades. The big ones can spend their usual years exploring a distant planet or moon, while the little ones riding along can have a hyper-focused secondary mission that may only last a few days, weeks or months. Both provide science, but with two different flavors. The next question, then, is how well the little missions will do in fulfilling their mandate.