Author Topic: Possible cost-reduction possibilities for the NASA portions of MSR  (Read 78425 times)

Offline Don2

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The core problem with MSR is it's using development by NASA and monopoly cost plus contractors to solve a problem, namely transporting samples, where success is easy enough to define to be compatible with competitive fixed price contracting.

I don't agree with this. I think the core problem is the complexity of the mission, and the many interdependent parts that have to work together. The complexity is beyond what planetary science has attempted in the past.

Another big problem is the failure of the cost estimation procedures to produce an accurate number. MSR was studied multiple times and even the 'gold standard' CATE process from the Aerospace Corporation failed to get it right. Why should we trust the current number of $10 billion? How do we know it isn't $20 billion? The only way to find out the real cost and mass of the orbiting sample, the MAV, and the capture and rendezvous spacecraft might be to build flight hardware and demonstrate it in Earth orbit. If the mass, size and cost of those elements were known then the rest of the system could be built around that.

I have a guess as to why the design of the orbiting sample has not been finalized. I suspect that the target mass is impossible to hit given the requirements. If the mass target is increased then that will ripple through the whole project.

Offline deltaV

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The core problem with MSR is it's using development by NASA and monopoly cost plus contractors to solve a problem, namely transporting samples, where success is easy enough to define to be compatible with competitive fixed price contracting.

That’s not the core problem.  The core problems are laid out in the Figueroa report:

https://www.nasa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/mars-sample-return-independent-review-board-report.pdf

Cost-plus contracting is like drunken driving: it doesn't directly cause accidents or cost overruns but it makes a wide variety of mistakes more likely and those mistakes cause problems.  That report is like root causing a drunk driving accident as deficiencies in the driver's judgement and reaction time and not mentioning the fact that they were drunk. If you think that driving drunk is normal it's expected for the report not to mention the drunkenness, but I don't think NASA should contract drunk.

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In a prior life, I was the NASA HQ bureaucrat who formulated and started the COTS program, the competitive, fixed-price, public-private partnership model upon which all subsequent major human space flight development projects have been based.  Although I remain advocate for that model or parts of it, even I would be highly skeptical of the use of fixed-price contracts for most MSR elements.  The model works when you want industry to provide a capability more efficiently that the government previously provided or has proven out before, like payload delivery, astronaut transport, and space stations.  MSR involves a number of technical “firsts”, like launch from the surface of Mars and rendezvous in Mars orbit, which are typically not compatible with a fixed-price structure.

Industry prefers if government takes the risks for them but if they have to they will make multi-billion-dollar investments even with huge technical uncertainties and major technical firsts. Examples include SpaceX's development of Falcon and Starship (first cost effective partially reusable launch vehicle, first VTVL orbital stage, first fully reusable launch vehicle, largest launch vehicle ever), airliners such as 787 (much more electrical than usual, more composites), Google/Waymo's development of the first self-driving car that was good enough to operate without a safety driver, development of new drugs, and design and construction of a state-of-the-art semiconductor fab. Mars sample return is if anything less risky than the majority of the projects I just listed so fixed-price Mars sample return should work. Of course even when fixed price is cheaper it may not look that way at first since with fixed price you know the true cost from the initial bid whereas cost plus inevitably uses overly optimistic cost estimates.

The one part of MSR that I would consider cost plus for is the Earth reentry capsule. I say this because that's presumably key to protecting Earth from the one in a trillion chance of the Mars sample containing life that would decimate Earth if released and protecting humanity from potential extinction is not something you want to be learned by trial and error. But even for this a private system that's accountable to government regulators could be safer than a government system that's accountable to no one. For example the worst nuclear disaster ever is Chernobyl and that was government.

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Even without those technical firsts, I’d still question a fixed-price relationship depending on the degree to which the DSN and/or DOE-supplied nuclear materials are involved.

Solar power works fine on Mars so no need for nuclear (unlike outer planet missions). NASA can rent out DSN. These are minor issues.

Offline Athelstane

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Here’s How to Bring Mars Down to Earth: Let NASA Do What NASA Does Best

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/heres-how-to-bring-mars-down-to-earth-let-nasa-do-what-nasa-does-best/

It's hard not to be impressed with Phil Plait's boundless optimism. He concedes that MSR has been mismanaged, and that the independent study NASA itself commissioned has spelled out in detail how bad it's been. Yet his solution is still to just "give NASA whatever it needs." There is not even the fig leaf of conditioning it on changes to the management of the program. As Don says, how can we even trust the $10 billion cost estimate we are looking at now, even before a PDR?

I don't doubt that the majority of posters here, like me, would like to see more money spent on space science. But in the real world NASA has had to live in for six-plus decades, the pool of money it has had to work with in doing so has always been limited. Which requires not only good project management to manage the money it does get, but often hard choices about what it will end up doing, and what it won't. And in that same real world, NASA's FY 2023 budget is already at a 33 year high in real dollars. Notwithstanding the House appropriations bill that just came out, it is simply not realistic to expect that Congress is just going to juice the SMD budget by a few extra billion a year for much of this decade because NASA bit off more than it could chew with its next flagship science mission.
« Last Edit: 11/04/2023 10:27 pm by Athelstane »

Offline Athelstane

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Industry prefers if government takes the risks for them but if they have to they will make multi-billion-dollar investments even with huge technical uncertainties and major technical firsts. Examples include SpaceX's development of Falcon and Starship (first cost effective partially reusable launch vehicle, first VTVL orbital stage, first fully reusable launch vehicle, largest launch vehicle ever), airliners such as 787 (much more electrical than usual, more composites), Google/Waymo's development of the first self-driving car that was good enough to operate without a safety driver, development of new drugs, and design and construction of a state-of-the-art semiconductor fab.


But isn't it obvious why the companies in these examples made such major investments in these systems? In each case, there was a business case which could be realized in the near and medium term for these vehicles: or at least, one that was plausible enough to company management. SpaceX went all in on Falcon, and then again on trying to make it largely reusable, because there was the prospect of grabbing a large share of an existing orbital payload market, both commercial and government. The objective was a vehicle which could be readily employed to chase that business: business which *already* existed. All that was before Starlink was even a gleam in Elon Musk's eye.

It is hardly obvious what the market is for the key components of MSR. Some of the technologies may be useful for activities elsewhere, but not as complete systems.

Offline VSECOTSPE

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Cost-plus contracting is like drunken driving...

No offense — not everyone has worked in this sector for a couple decades-plus like some of us — but you don’t know what you’re talking about.

First, the cost-plus awards on MSR so far are small to tiny.  They consist of:

— $10M to Aerovironment for twin choppers,
— $17M  to Honeybee for CCRS, EES, and SEM,
— $194M to LockMart for MAV.

The bulk of the $1.7B+ in MSR spending to date has been NASA internal, especially the lander.  That’s where the problems lie.  Strongly recommend that you read Figueroa’s report (I linked above) instead of repeatedly hitting the c-o-s-t-p-l-u-s-b-a-d keys on your laptop.

Second, fixed price in not a panacea.  In my own fixed-price ISS cargo transport development program (COTS), we had a contractor (RocketPlane-Kistler) fall out because they couldn’t raise funds.  In the fixed-price crew transport follow-on program (CCDev), Boeing is still struggling with technical issues in Starliner that have delayed its entry by years.  Again, suggest you read up on these programs — link below to the COTS history doc — instead of repeatedly hitting the c-o-s-t-p-l-u-s-b-a-d keys on your laptop.

https://www.nasa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/sp-2014-617.pdf

At the risk of getting on a soapbox... cost-plus versus fixed-price is just one toggle or tool among many in a manager’s procurement dashboard or toolbox.  For example, in my experience, maintenance of competition is much more important than cost-plus vs fixed-price.  If a contractor has the government over a barrel as the monopoly provider, the government is usually screwed regardless of what type of contract is being used.  Requirements definition is probably second only to competition in ensuring successful procurements and programs.  Cost-plus vs fixed-price is farther down the list.  Other toggles and tools include legal regime (FAR vs Space Act), degree of partnering and cost-sharing, etc.

Where the vast majority of NASA managers fail is not learning that these toggles and tools even exist in the first place, what their implications are, where they best fit different program types and goals, and obtaining good procurement and legal advice and support (one of NASA’s many soft underbellies) to choose the right tools and execute well with them.

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Industry prefers if government takes the risks for them but if they have to they will make multi-billion-dollar investments even with huge technical uncertainties and major technical firsts. Examples include SpaceX's development of Falcon and Starship (first cost effective partially reusable launch vehicle, first VTVL orbital stage, first fully reusable launch vehicle, largest launch vehicle ever), airliners such as 787 (much more electrical than usual, more composites), Google/Waymo's development of the first self-driving car that was good enough to operate without a safety driver, development of new drugs, and design and construction of a state-of-the-art semiconductor fab. Mars sample return is if anything less risky than the majority of the projects I just listed so fixed-price Mars sample return should work.

Apples and oranges.

Corporations are willing to invest billions of R&D dollars in things like airliners, autonomous vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and semiconductors because there are multi-ten to multi-hundred billion dollar markets for these things.

There is no market for MSR.  There’s just a couple decadal reviews from the planetary science community telling NASA that Mars sample return should be the next flagship planetary science mission after Europa Clipper.  It’s a narrow research campaign for some hundreds of scientists, not a world-wide market with millions of potential customers.  That’s it.

That doesn’t mean that NASA shouldn’t work smart and probably not build stuff in-house when JPL is already overstretched and industry has the experience building the Mars program landers.  It may even mean that NASA should open up the aperture on competition and see if novel providers have something to offer.  But no company is going to throw billions of dollars of R&D investment at a one-off, fixed-price MSR mission.  There’s just no money in that.

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Solar power works fine on Mars so no need for nuclear (unlike outer planet missions).

Nope.  Needed for thermal mgmt.  Look up radioisotope heater unit (RHU).  At one point, MSR would use over 25 of them.

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NASA can rent out DSN. These are minor issues.

For myriad reasons, government-furnished equipment and services don’t work well with fixed-price contracts.

Offline deltaV

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So who would you go to?

NASA should make fixed-price contracts with two providers chosen in an open competition. Each contract should be primarily for returning one of the two sets of samples and also give NASA a pre-priced option to return the second set. NASA could exercise an option if one provider fails.

Another big problem is the failure of the cost estimation procedures to produce an accurate number. MSR was studied multiple times and even the 'gold standard' CATE process from the Aerospace Corporation failed to get it right. Why should we trust the current number of $10 billion? How do we know it isn't $20 billion?

+1. Fixed-price contracting avoids this issue - the government knows the price before it commits.

It is hardly obvious what the market is for the key components of MSR. Some of the technologies may be useful for activities elsewhere, but not as complete systems.

The lack of market is concerning for fixed-price since contractors that don't see a future are more likely to abuse NASA. But cost plus and government run can do badly too so I'm not sure fixed-price is worse. Does anyone have any examples of cases where governments have used fixed price contracts with two+ winners where there's little or no other market for the goods or services? Did it work? ISS resupply is almost an answer to my question but there's a bit more potential market for space station resupply than there would be for MSR.

Offline deltaV

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The bulk of the $1.7B+ in MSR spending to date has been NASA internal, especially the lander.

True I've been a bit sloppy complaining about cost plus. However projects that are done solely by NASA and projects run by NASA with cost-plus assistance are similar in that neither method has much accountability or competition. So the distinction between cost-plus and NASA-internal isn't important to my arguments.

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Second, fixed price in not a panacea.  In my own fixed-price ISS cargo transport development program (COTS), we had a contractor (RocketPlane-Kistler) fall out because they couldn’t raise funds.  In the fixed-price crew transport follow-on program (CCDev), Boeing is still struggling with technical issues in Starliner that have delayed its entry by years.

Both those programs have been successful and delivered ok value to taxpayers overall despite those issues due to the use of two providers. In future competitions NASA should be sure to include options in the contracts so one provider can do the work of both if one fails. If there's repeated demand for the service, such an option also makes sense if one provider is late, e.g. ISS resupply.

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At the risk of getting on a soapbox... cost-plus versus fixed-price is just one toggle or tool among many in a manager’s procurement dashboard or toolbox.  For example, in my experience, maintenance of competition is much more important than cost-plus vs fixed-price.  If a contractor has the government over a barrel as the monopoly provider, the government is usually screwed regardless of what type of contract is being used.  Requirements definition is probably second only to competition in ensuring successful procurements and programs.  Cost-plus vs fixed-price is farther down the list.  Other toggles and tools include legal regime (FAR vs Space Act), degree of partnering and cost-sharing, etc.

Where the vast majority of NASA managers fail is not learning that these toggles and tools even exist in the first place, what their implications are, where they best fit different program types and goals, and obtaining good procurement and legal advice and support (one of NASA’s many soft underbellies) to choose the right tools and execute well with them.

I bet you're right about competition being more important than fixed price. I'm a fan of both fixed price and continued competition and want to see both adopted when possible. I'll try to be clearer in the future that (i) my favored structure (when the government can specify what it wants reasonably precisely, which isn't all contracts) includes both fixed price and continuing competition and (ii) my disfavored structures include monopoly fixed price, cost-plus, and NASA internal.

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But no company is going to throw billions of dollars of R&D investment at a one-off, fixed-price MSR mission.  There’s just no money in that.

If the company can plan to spend say $900M (including deprecation of capital used) over one year to get a milestone payment of $1.2B at the end of the year, and then repeat this 5 more times for later milestones in the following years, isn't that a decent profit margin even without any non-government business? That's a 33% ROI for money that's invested an average of 6 months before the payment so a roughly 66% annual rate of return. Of course there will probably be at least some cost overruns and delays so it's not that good but still.

Offline Don2

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If NASA can't forecast the cost of MSR then the private sector can't either. Nobody will give the government a fixed price contract under those circumstances.

Any rocket than can launch to the space station can launch payloads to low Earth orbit. There are many customers who need that. With some work they can also serve the geostationary market. The rockets developed for commercial space station resupply had many potential customers.

The Russians had been doing unmanned resupply runs to their space station since 1978 with the Progress vehicle. The Europeans developed their ATV without fuss and made their first run in 2008. The Japanese developed Kuonotori made its first flight in 2009. The CRS program simply asked for an American version of technology which had already been demonstrated by three foreign agencies. No new technology was required.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H-II_Transfer_Vehicle

MSR is completely different.

Offline Jim

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JPL is arguably also a cost plus contractor.

Wrong.  JPL is NASA.  No different than GSFC building spacecraft

Offline VSECOTSPE

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NASA should make fixed-price contracts with two providers chosen in an open competition. Each contract should be primarily for returning one of the two sets of samples and also give NASA a pre-priced option to return the second set. NASA could exercise an option if one provider fails.

If you look at the industry landscape, NASA would not get two providers for MSR under this framework.  If you look at the planetary protection requirements, it probably wouldn’t even get one.

Each provider under this scheme would need three things:  access to billions of dollars in capital; a corporate risk posture that allows them to spend that capital on something as untried as MSR; and an interest in Mars that drives them to spend that capital on MSR.

The capital requirements eliminate all the low- and mid-tier suppliers and the small- and mid-sized firms.  Only the big majors will have that much cash or access to it.  We’re talking Blue Origin, Boeing, LockMart, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX.  Even if they wanted to chase MSR, anyone besides these six doesn’t have the cash or access to it.

Three of these majors are publicly traded corporations:  Boeing, LockMart, and Northrop Grumman  They’re responsible to their stockholders, especially the institutional ones, who would sue if one of them was blowing billions on an MSR mission.  They don’t have the right risk posture.  They’re out.

Of the remaining three, only SpaceX has an interest in Mars.  Blue Origin is focused on the Moon and Sierra Nevada on Earth orbit.  They’re not going to blow billions on MSR.

Could NASA contract with SpaceX to use a version of Starship to help execute MSR, like NASA has contracted with SpaceX for a version of Starship to use as a human lunar lander in Artemis?  Maybe in theory.  But practically speaking, Starship probably only provides the launch and the EDL to Mars surface.  Until Starships are processing propellant on the Martian surface and reentering Earth’s atmosphere from Mars trajectories — which are probably at least a couple decades into the future — MSR would still need a MAV, ERO, and ERV.  Even then, the planetary protection requirements at the site and the sample isolation requirements probably prohibit using something as large and exposed as Starship for the lander.  There’s no way to reduce its spore count.

Again, NASA probably needs to look beyond JPL for the lander supplier, and firms besides LockMart may have something to offer, and competition has a lot of salutary effects.  But it’s hard to see any company taking on the entire MSR mission, and fixed-price doesn’t make that more possible.

[Where the kind of scheme you lay out (or variants of it) might work is at near-Earth asteroids.  Back in the days of the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, there were a couple startup firms, one even led by ex-JPLers, ostensibly interested in asteroid mining in the long-term but really asteroid data missions using souped-up  smallsat buses in the near-term.  NASA’s science directorate could have argued for a small slice of the ARM pie to buy data from these companies, fly instruments on their buses, and/or maybe even bring back samples.  I was working for the chief technologist just before that time, and for totally unrelated reasons, had Ames run a study on similar mission concepts.  The numbers came out in the low tens of millions of dollars.  At those dollar levels and absent the complexity and difficult requirements of MSR, that’s the sort of thing that would be within the wherewithal of lots of firms to execute.  It wouldn’t be decadal- or PI-level research but still worthwhile at that budget level, especially if it was new money.  But that era has passed us by, and those two firms have since folded or became component suppliers.]

+1. Fixed-price contracting avoids this issue - the government knows the price before it commits.

Only if the govt has other suppliers to turn to or doesn’t mind terminating the project when a firm can’t/won’t finish for the price in the contract.  But if the govt needs the project to succeed and has no other suppliers, it’s stuck when the firm fails, whether the contract was fixed price or not.

ISS resupply is almost an answer to my question but there's a bit more potential market for space station resupply than there would be for MSR.

There’s a huge difference between ISS cargo and crew transport and MSR in that the launchers developed or used for ISS have lots of other potential customers in the commercial, national security, and civil satellite launch markets.  ISS is only a small part of the F9 manifest.  One way to view COTS and CCDev is that they consolidated NASA’s LEO human space flight launch needs with the rest of the launch market, leveraging the investments made for that market.

That’s not true of nearly all MSR elements.  The launch will obviously be on an existing vehicle, but the investments made to develop the lander, any retrieval rovers/choppers, the MAV, the ORV, the ERV, etc. are unique to MSR.  Unlike ISS launchers, there’s no other customers for those developments.

In future competitions NASA should be sure to include options in the contracts so one provider can do the work of both if one fails.

NASA does this.  ISS crew rotations that would have gone to Starliner are now assigned to Dragon.

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If the company can plan to spend say $900M (including deprecation of capital used) over one year to get a milestone payment of $1.2B at the end of the year, and then repeat this 5 more times for later milestones in the following years, isn't that a decent profit margin even without any non-government business? That's a 33% ROI for money that's invested an average of 6 months before the payment so a roughly 66% annual rate of return. Of course there will probably be at least some cost overruns and delays so it's not that good but still.

In theory, NASA could run a fixed-price contract like this.  In practice, NASA has not done so and instead required cost-sharing from the contractor.  The contractor does not make a profit and is not made whole at each milestone or at the end of the development.  Instead, the contractor is required to bet that its investment will pay off in follow-on service contracts from NASA and/or that there will be other customers for its new capability.

Also practically speaking, I doubt the political optics would let a contractor run up 33% profit (vice the usual ~5% on cost-plus) on fixed-price milestones and contractors.  There would be complaints of price-gouging, bilking taxpayers, etc. even if the work overall cost a fraction of the comparable cost-plus approach.  Such is reality.

Offline VSECOTSPE

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If NASA can't forecast the cost of MSR then the private sector can't either.

NASA can forecast MSR costs.  I recognize the name of at least one top-notch NASA cost-estimator/budget manager on the staff of Figueroa’s report.  Presumably, he’s delivering the same kinds of MSR figures to Figueroa that he would have provided to HQ.

But somewhere in the decision making on what to request for the MSR budget, PSD or Science Directorate leadership chose to use a figure that was even lower than what was in planetary decadal.  That’s inexplicable/inexcusable.  Just inflation alone during the time between the decadal and when MSR was added to the budget would have increased, not lowered, that figure.

HQ has to budget properly for projects or not do them.  HQ has to avoid the temptation to stuff 10lbs of projects into a 5lb budget for the sake of discipline balance, avoiding difficult discussions with OMB/Hill, etc.  The long-term pain will be much greater than the near-term discomfort.  That’s what making difficult leadership and management decisions is all about.

On top of that, MSR has spun its wheels and blown $1.7B without even defining the OS.  Again, just inexplicable/inexcusable to have spent that much and the element around which all other subsystems wrap has not been settled.  That’s going to add a lot to the total, not because of poor cost estimates but because of poor/absentee management.

Offline vjkane

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The Planetary Society has an excellent interview with Orlando Figueroa that gives a lot of background on the problems behind MSR. I highly recommend it.

https://www.planetary.org/planetary-radio/spe-what-went-wrong-with-msr

Offline deltaV

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+1. Fixed-price contracting avoids this issue - the government knows the price before it commits.

Only if the govt has other suppliers to turn to or doesn’t mind terminating the project when a firm can’t/won’t finish for the price in the contract.  But if the govt needs the project to succeed and has no other suppliers, it’s stuck when the firm fails, whether the contract was fixed price or not.

Agreed.

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In future competitions NASA should be sure to include options in the contracts so one provider can do the work of both if one fails.

NASA does this.  ISS crew rotations that would have gone to Starliner are now assigned to Dragon.

Cool.

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If the company can plan to spend say $900M (including deprecation of capital used) over one year to get a milestone payment of $1.2B at the end of the year, and then repeat this 5 more times for later milestones in the following years, isn't that a decent profit margin even without any non-government business? That's a 33% ROI for money that's invested an average of 6 months before the payment so a roughly 66% annual rate of return. Of course there will probably be at least some cost overruns and delays so it's not that good but still.

In theory, NASA could run a fixed-price contract like this.  In practice, NASA has not done so and instead required cost-sharing from the contractor.  The contractor does not make a profit and is not made whole at each milestone or at the end of the development.  Instead, the contractor is required to bet that its investment will pay off in follow-on service contracts from NASA and/or that there will be other customers for its new capability.

Also practically speaking, I doubt the political optics would let a contractor run up 33% profit (vice the usual ~5% on cost-plus) on fixed-price milestones and contractors.  There would be complaints of price-gouging, bilking taxpayers, etc. even if the work overall cost a fraction of the comparable cost-plus approach.  Such is reality.

You have an excellent point about political optics of contractor profits. If the contractor making a nice profit if things go well isn't politically viable then you're probably right about fixed price not working for MSR. Unless NASA is willing to wait for SpaceX to get Mars ISRU working and have only one provider.

Offline VSECOTSPE

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The Planetary Society has an excellent interview with Orlando Figueroa that gives a lot of background on the problems behind MSR. I highly recommend it.

Most of the interview was about building support for MSR, which I get given the Senate threat.  But that doesn’t really get into the guts of what went wrong, which is the reason for the report.  I wouldn’t expect a Planetary Society podcast to be penetrating and critical, but still.

Drier also didn’t get some facts right and Figueroa did not correct him.  MSR has not spent $3B to date.  Figueroa never worked at JPL.  Etc.

Offline thespacecow

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It's strange that the recent commenters of this thread do not seem to have read the early posts, are the recent comments moved over from the other thread? Remember this is the non-PoR thread, you don't have to assume PoR here.

But isn't it obvious why the companies in these examples made such major investments in these systems? In each case, there was a business case which could be realized in the near and medium term for these vehicles: or at least, one that was plausible enough to company management. SpaceX went all in on Falcon, and then again on trying to make it largely reusable, because there was the prospect of grabbing a large share of an existing orbital payload market, both commercial and government. The objective was a vehicle which could be readily employed to chase that business: business which *already* existed. All that was before Starlink was even a gleam in Elon Musk's eye.

It is hardly obvious what the market is for the key components of MSR. Some of the technologies may be useful for activities elsewhere, but not as complete systems.

I thought the business case would be obvious: It's the crewed Mars missions that NASA is hoping to do under Artemis.

This has been pointed out early in the thread: Just use a uncrewed version of your crewed Mars architecture to do MSR. You're going to have to do uncrewed test flight of this architecture anyway, so adding sample return is just a bonus. There are huge potential in terms of cost sharing, and it also helps that the current Artemis PoR is already funding one of these for lunar landing.

Remember the US moon rocks were also brought back by a crewed architecture, albeit via crewed mission instead of uncrewed mission.
« Last Edit: 11/06/2023 02:38 am by thespacecow »

Offline VSECOTSPE

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I thought the business case would be obvious: It's the crewed Mars missions that NASA is hoping to do under Artemis.

This has been pointed out early in the thread: Just use a uncrewed version of your crewed Mars architecture to do MSR. You're going to have to do uncrewed test flight of this architecture anyway, so adding sample return is just a bonus. There are huge potential in terms of cost sharing, and it also helps that the current Artemis PoR is already funding one of these for lunar landing.

Planetary protection requirements at Mars.  Can’t control spore counts on something as big and exposed as Starship.

Offline Zed_Noir

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I thought the business case would be obvious: It's the crewed Mars missions that NASA is hoping to do under Artemis.

This has been pointed out early in the thread: Just use a uncrewed version of your crewed Mars architecture to do MSR. You're going to have to do uncrewed test flight of this architecture anyway, so adding sample return is just a bonus. There are huge potential in terms of cost sharing, and it also helps that the current Artemis PoR is already funding one of these for lunar landing.

Planetary protection requirements at Mars.  Can’t control spore counts on something as big and exposed as Starship.
IMO. The US planetary protection protocols for Mars will be drastically reduced or be eliminated once Starship is operational and capable of reaching the Martian surface. Especially since the Chinese will not use the US planetary protection protocols for Mars.

However there will likely be attempts to avoid contamination. If a Starship has some role in Mars Sample return.



Offline VSECOTSPE

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IMO. The US planetary protection protocols for Mars will be drastically reduced or be eliminated once Starship is operational and capable of reaching the Martian surface. Especially since the Chinese will not use the US planetary protection protocols for Mars.

China is a member of COSPAR Planetary Protection Panel, the international body that sets planetary protection guidelines, and is a ratified signatory of the Outer Space Treaty, the international agreement that grants COSPAR its authority.  A couple thousand researchers from around the world attend COSPAR meetings every couple years.  There are different planetary protection guidelines for different environments, and different standards will apply to different areas of Mars.  I don’t know exactly how the area is defined, but given its scientific importance, the standards won’t change for the Jezero Crater area for the foreseeable future.  When looking for microscopic evidence of life in an extraterrestrial environment, the last thing researchers want to do is introduce Earth life into that environment.

You may be right over the unforeseeable long-term if Jezero or Mars generally are determined to have always been sterile environments and there is substantial human activity on Mars.  But we’re a very long ways from such a determination or need.

Offline Jim

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I thought the business case would be obvious: It's the crewed Mars missions that NASA is hoping to do under Artemis.


Artremis is only the moon.

Offline Don2

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From the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, MSR Lander Mission, Mission Concept Study (April 2010):
https://nap.nationalacademies.org/reports/13117/App%20G%2009_Mars-Sample-Return-Lander.pdf

Lander cost = 2499 (2015$)
Lander mass with margins: Total: 2122 kg (My calculation, from adding component masses)
Lander components:
                                        Descent Stage (dry): 722 kg
                                        Descent Stage fuel: 389 kg
                                        Lander: 554 kg (I think this excludes the rover and MAV)
                                        MAV: 300 kg  (Including 5 kg orbiting sample)
                                        Fetch rover: 157 kg

This design proposed reusing the landing system from Curiosity. The 'Descent Stage' is the skycrane. The lander used a crushable structure instead of landing legs. The mass of the Orbiting Sample is much lower than the current 11kg design, although it carried the same number of samples.

From the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, MSR Orbiter Mission, Mission Concept Study (April 2010)
https://nap.nationalacademies.org/reports/13117/App%20G%2008_Mars-Sample-Return-Orbiter.pdf

Sample Return Orbiter cost = 1343 (2015$)
Sample Return Orbiter mass = 3270kg (with fuel)

Total cost Lander + Orbiter = 3842 (2015$)  = 4968 (2024$)

The 2010 proposal also included a sample collecting rover. I will ignore this because I don't think the cost of Perseverance is included in the current estimates.

***************
Current Sample Retrieval Lander  mass = 3375 kg
Current Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) mass = 450 kg
Current Orbital Sample mass = 11 kg (Only 30 tubes carried. One less than earlier proposals)
Current Sample Return Orbiter mass = 7000 kg
(Data from NASA websites)

Cost estimate from Figueroa report 8-9.6 billion RY$ (The cost in 2024$ would be a little less. This probably doesn't include the cost of the European built sample return orbiter)

**********
One of the reasons why the 2010 cost estimates were wrong is that the size of the orbiting sample has grown from 5kg to 11kg. The mass of the samples being returned from Mars has not gone up. NASA should figure out what has driven the mass growth. Are there dumb requirements that need to be eliminated? Why do we need 11kg of spacecraft to package 0.45kg of Martian sample?

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