Author Topic: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?  (Read 3625 times)

Offline Danderman

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Probably most of you have heard that NASA is basically cancelling most of its robotic exploration of Mars after MSL, due to budgetary constraints. My feeling is that there may be a silver lining in there.

There have been several short lived attempts in the past to develop small Mars projects, from a network of weather stations on Mars to communications relays, but in the context of a NASA program aimed at major projects launched every 2 years, these never made the cut against full scale landers and large orbiters.

I am suggesting that there may be an opening for NASA to purchase data services from private companies for certain, limited functions in the Mars environment. For example, seismograph data from the surface of Mars would be useful, and probably could be  obtained at relatively low cost.  Small weather stations could be placed on the surface of Mars, as well. A Phobos or Deimos lander could provide significant new data about those objects. Mars communications services from small relay sats would expand the amount of data that could be sent back from small landers on the Mars surface or from Phobos or Deimos, as well as from ESA or NASA missions.

Without NASA mainline missions to Mars, we could see the gap filled by low cost commercial exploration. BTW, its the law of the land that this should happen.

Offline cycleroadie

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #1 on: 02/14/2012 07:50 pm »
Because it's easy to get to Mars and to make a landing on it. Just ask the Russians ;-)
Lloyd
"As we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. God bless the crew of Apollo 17." - Commander Gene Cernan , Apollo 17

Offline Danderman

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #2 on: 02/14/2012 10:01 pm »
That's not how the science works.

Nobody just specifies a "data purchase" and then asks for somebody to bid on it.

And what few people realize is that often the companies that work on these science missions are making almost no profit on them. They're doing it for the prestige, not the money. They take their profit on other things, like military comsats.

Also, the science priorities are established in the decadal survey. You can look there and see where seismic information from Mars is prioritized.

You are correct.

However, we may be living in a world soon where the top priorities for Mars science may simply not be achievable, due to budget constraints. At that point, the science community may happily accept a low-priority dataset for a low dollar outlay.

And no, the process for the government buying data is not simply for suppliers to go fishing for the data and have the government accept whatever is provided.
« Last Edit: 02/14/2012 10:02 pm by Danderman »

Offline Jim

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #3 on: 02/14/2012 10:03 pm »

And what few people realize is that often the companies that work on these science missions are making almost no profit on them. They're doing it for the prestige, not the money. They take their profit on other things, like military comsats.


LM management has said that many times

Offline QuantumG

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #4 on: 02/15/2012 12:58 am »
lots of sweat and no profit? If that's your criteria for efficiency then it's no wonder they cost so much.
Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #5 on: 02/15/2012 01:19 am »
There's a great quote by Merton Davies, who was a physicist with RAND Corp. and one of the pioneers of early spaceflight, that I'm looking for. He said something like "Science is when you get answers and you don't even know what the questions were." That's not the kind of thing you can specify in an RFP.
« Last Edit: 02/15/2012 12:22 pm by Blackstar »

Offline QuantumG

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #6 on: 02/15/2012 01:28 am »
Efficiency in this context means that the taxpayer is getting a lot for every dollar spent. That's because the people work really hard and the companies that build the spacecraft are not making much profit.

Congratulations, you've just made every economist on Earth shiver simultaneously.
Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline aero

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #7 on: 02/15/2012 01:43 am »
Efficiency in this context means that the taxpayer is getting a lot for every dollar spent. That's because the people work really hard and the companies that build the spacecraft are not making much profit.

Congratulations, you've just made every economist on Earth shiver simultaneously.

Well think about it. Science missions are almost by definition "one-of-a-kind." Something like the instruments may exist elsewhere but they aren't flight qualified and are way to massive.  Your job is to make a new instrument out of different (space qualified) parts while cutting every gram of mass possible. You would need to be omniscient to know up front what that will cost. You do know that your team wants the opportunity so you bid low enough to get the job but high enough to avoid burn-out of your team from overwork, all the while knowing that casual (unpaid) overtime is not allowed on this contract. So the economists shiver and so does Accounting.

edit: And the bid, no-bid decision gets bumped up to higher and higher levels within your company.
« Last Edit: 02/15/2012 01:51 am by aero »
Retired, working interesting problems

Offline Blackjax

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #8 on: 02/15/2012 01:53 am »

And what few people realize is that often the companies that work on these science missions are making almost no profit on them. They're doing it for the prestige, not the money. They take their profit on other things, like military comsats.


LM management has said that many times

I haven't seen them put it in writing, but it's an open secret among project managers. I've heard from several well-known ones (like guys who ran Viking) that this is so.

People outside the community don't realize this, but it's not possible to do most of these missions more efficiently than they are already done. You can make them cheaper by doing less, but the taxpayer is already getting a bargain on them--scientists working 70+ hours a week and not getting overtime, contractors not making much profit, etc.

Launch costs aside, do you know how the costs on these things break out?  What drives the costs? 

Offline QuantumG

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #9 on: 02/15/2012 02:27 am »
Technology development. When you're trying to do something that hasn't been done before, it's expensive. But these are all one of a kind spacecraft. There's no ability to amortize development costs over multiple vehicles.

You're confusing cause and effect. There's only two Mars Exploration Rovers on Mars because of the high cost. They're not high cost because there's only need for two on Mars.

Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline Jim

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #10 on: 02/15/2012 02:49 am »
You're confusing cause and effect. There's only two Mars Exploration Rovers on Mars because of the high cost. They're not high cost because there's only need for two on Mars.

Wrong.  It is nothing to do with the cost of the MER missions.  Which was $800 million (the cost of two Discovery class mission), which is not high.   Flying more MER rovers was not feasible.

The MER rovers/spacecraft could have only launched in 2003.  A planetary alignment that only occurs every 15 years allowed for a minimum departure C3 and a low Mars arrival velocity.  The 2005 and later windows would have required at least an Atlas II/Vfor launch but the entry speeds would too high for the EDL systems to handle.  It was a point solution for Delta II.  Hence the whole vehicle would have to be redesigned for any other time frame.   The landing bag system was already max out for the existing rovers and the second rover almost didn't make it, if not for some information provided by the first rover that allowed for reprogramming of the timing of the EDL events.
« Last Edit: 02/15/2012 02:55 am by Jim »

Online ugordan

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #11 on: 02/15/2012 08:16 am »
and the second rover almost didn't make it

I thought the first rover (Spirit) came very close to buying it, that's why they modified the EDL timing for Opportunity?

Offline dcporter

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #12 on: 02/15/2012 02:08 pm »
and the second rover almost didn't make it

I thought the first rover (Spirit) came very close to buying it, that's why they modified the EDL timing for Opportunity?

I assume Jim's implication was that Spirit's landing was less stressful than Oppy's was going to be, and if they hadn't had Spirit's near-miss to learn from they would have lost Oppy.
« Last Edit: 02/17/2012 05:44 pm by dcporter »

Offline Danderman

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #13 on: 02/15/2012 02:37 pm »
There's a great quote by Merton Davies, who was a physicist with RAND Corp. and one of the pioneers of early spaceflight, that I'm looking for. He said something like "Science is when you get answers and you don't even know what the questions were." That's not the kind of thing you can specify in an RFP.

That has nothing to do with the procurement methodology for acquiring data.

Offline CitabriaFlyer

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #14 on: 02/16/2012 10:05 am »
I don't think we should discount the premise for this thread.  There may be a role for commercial explorers to provide specific requested information.  This may be an opportunity to award prizes; although, to be effective I think more prize money would be required than a certain politician would care to admit.

Possibilites might include:

1) 3 billion prize for a global map of Europa with sufficient resolution to plan a landing mission
2) 7 billion dollar prize for 1kg of Mars dirt from any spot on the planet

I agree with the previous poster, however, who doubts this could replace our current planetary exploration process because the strategy discussed here will bias the consumer (taxpayer) by looking for answers to specific questions whereas a good flagship mission is designed to look for questions.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Mars Budget Cuts an Opening for Commercial Exploration?
« Reply #15 on: 02/16/2012 08:00 pm »
I found the quote: “The joy of exploration is finding answers for which there are no questions.”--Merton E. Davies

And re Danderman's comment, this is entirely relevant to the procurement methodology for acquiring data, because it's not possible to precisely specify the data required ahead of time for "science" missions. It's already pretty hard to specify the data required for operational missions, such as Landsat. That was tried in the 1980s and failed.

As for big prizes, they cannot work for a simple reason: no company will trust the government to pay many years later. What happens if somebody fronts their own money, builds something, achieves the goal, and Congress or the White House says "we no longer care about that stuff, so we're not going to pay"? That uncertainty makes large prizes impossible.

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