NASA begs out of first SpaceX’s Mars mission


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NASA has decided to hold off contributing any science instruments for SpaceX’s first Dragon mission to Mars.

NASA wants to wait until SpaceX proves it can pull off a soft landing on the Red Planet before committing millions of dollars’ worth of equipment to the spaceflight company’s “Red Dragon” effort, said Jim Green, head of the agency’s Planetary Science Division. “Landing on Mars is hard,” Green said during a talk Tuesday (Dec. 13) here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “I want to wait this one out.”

15 comments

  • wodun

    Landing on Mars is hard but so is landing on Earth. Would NASA have had any qualms about hitching a ride with the Euros? Nope.

    Seems shortsighted not to put some pocket change into the SpaceX launch. SpaceX should replicate the equipment that NASA was going to put on it and then sell the data back to NASA.

  • NASA doesn’t seem to have a problem committing millions when it’s their untried spacecraft.

  • Musk has said there’s only a 50 percent chance of succeeding on the first Red Dragon mission. I don’t blame NASA for sitting this one out. There’s also the schedule. NASA would have to develop instruments by spring 2018 (not a lot of time) with the extremely high likelihood of having them sit around for two years because Musk never meets his schedules.

    Musk says he’s sending spacecraft to Mars every two years once he actually sends one for the first time. There will be opportunities down the road.

    There are some within NASA quite annoyed at Musk’s fixation on Mars even as the multi-billion dollar commercial crew program continues to slide. Getting people to ISS seems to have slipped down on the priority list.

    >NASA doesn’t seem to have a problem committing millions when it’s their untried spacecraft.

    NASA is the best in the world at landing things on Mars. That kind of put down is really uncalled for.

    > Landing on Mars is hard but so is landing on Earth. Would NASA have had any qualms about hitching a ride with the Euros? Nope.

    They wouldn’t have any qualms if ESA can demonstrate they learned their lesson from the lander that crashed on the surface. That was a test vehicle. This is why we test.

    NASA was originally a partner on ExoMars. But the agency pulled out for cost reasons. The budget was tight, and something had to go.

  • wayne

    Blair– good stuff.

    I’m just the Forgotten Man that pays for NASA, at the point of gun. Personally, I’ll characterize them & anything they do or not, any way I please.

  • LocalFluff

    Dragon weights more than the sum of everything that has landed or crashed on Mars, so it might look like a challenge. A new way of landing has been proposed. Diving down to low altitude without decelerating, and then aerodynamically turning to horizontal flight until the speed has been lowered to what the landing rockets can handle.

    But the generous payload mass and volume capacity should allow for using off the shelf instruments at low cost. If private or foreign or even crowd funded instruments make breakthrough discoveries, for example by drilling a few meters deep or detecting seismic activity or methane, then this decision won’t look good for NASA.

  • Gealon

    I don’t agree with you at all D. Messier, regardless of the risk, if I were NASA, I’d want my name on Red Dragon somewhere, even if it’s just a camera. By not supporting it, they make themselves look immature, that just because it’s not them building the whole craft, they won’t participate. Hell, if I had the funding, I’d build a rover myself just to trek away from the lander and take pictures of it, simply for PR. Without spending the time to source materials and relying on my experience as an engineer, I can tell you that building a rover for this purpose alone would not be Earth shatteringly expensive, well within the Thousands, not Millions of dollars. So what is the problem? Politics is the problem. If NASA really didn’t want to risk Millions of dollars on a risky mission, Vikings 1 and 2 never would have launched. Last I checked, there were no test landers before them.

    Now, onto more important matters, where do I apply for a grant to build a rover for Red Dragon? I’ll ask for an “even” $999,999.99, minus the Millions of dollars it would take to test the rover in NASA’s giant pressure chambers.

  • Edward

    To add to D. Messier’s and Gealon’s comments:

    NASA seems to be getting the data that they wanted for the low, low price of providing technical support to the first Red Dragon mission. This low cost for such important data should make taxpayers, such as wayne, happy. This is excellent value for the manpower spent.

    As for a rover to provide a PR photo of a landed Dragon, perhaps JPL has some Sojourner parts or designs, from the Pathfinder mission, that SpaceX (or Gealon) could purchase to make such a rover. Dragon’s hatch opens to form a ramp, Sojourner II drives onto the surface and snaps a photo, and everybody’s happy. This probably won’t happen.

    It would be easier and less expensive to have the Dragon drop/throw/roll a bunch of spherical cameras onto the surface and hope that one or more of them end up facing the landed capsule. Or maybe a boom could extend out and provide an assured “selfie” photograph.

    As for the slipping of the commercial crew program (CCDev/CCtCap):
    1) NASA should understand that these slips happen, as they have had plenty of them in their own programs, such as SLS.

    2) Speaking of SLS, it is sucking the funds out of the CCDev/CCtCap program, making it Congress’s fault that we can’t expect any flights until 2018 rather than having already begun in 2015. If CCDev/CCtCap had been a priority, then they would have been fully funded.

    3) If transport to ISS was such a priority for NASA and Congress, why didn’t NASA schedule some just-in-case Soyuz launches, considering their knowledge of and experience with item #1? NASA is providing poor examples of their priorities, if they are complaining about SpaceX’s (and Boeing’s?) schedule.

    3) Even the latest schedule slip at SpaceX still gets their first manned mission to the ISS within the contract time and is still sooner than Boeing’s scheduled first flight. SpaceX’s earlier schedule was the (typical strategy of) optimistic schedule that allowed for the inevitable slips to not interfere with the contractual deadline.

    4) NASA thinks that “the development of a new human-rated spacecraft and launch vehicle is a challenging endeavor.” ( from the embedded article: http://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/spacex-pushes-back-first-manned-dragon-flight/ ), so slips to the initial schedule should have been expected. And:

    5) Why do people at NASA think that Dragon is going to be ready in time for a 2018 launch to Mars? It could slip out of that timeframe, too. I’m not sure why NASA views a non-revenue venture as being a higher priority to SpaceX or Musk than a revenue contract. Unlike NASA, SpaceX does not get free money from Congress, which extorts it from taxpayers.

  • Gealon

    Edward, a Sojourner-esque rover is exactly what I was thinking about. Something small, simple and cheap. Though I would make improvements over the original design, rechargeable batteries for one, likely lithium iron phosphate. Basically a stamp module in an insulated box, batteries, solar cells, one pair of cameras only, the motors for the drive system and a mast to elevate the cameras and for pan/tilt and finally a low wattage transceiver for the rover to be commanded from the lander. If it is as conservative a design as possible, I could do it with 6 off the shelf stepper motors, but that would be nixing the camera mast and driving with only four wheels. The most expensive parts would probably be the solar cells.

    For all of the bells and whistles, 13 motors, plus an extra one to deploy any spare APXS’s JPL might have laying around. Of course once we having this roving platform, why not take the opportunity to add instrumentation to it? We would then be getting into the realm having to handle data other then internal temperature, battery charge and the video signals, but at worst that’s a converter module to allow the stamp module to talk to the instruments if it can’t already.

    As for egress from the Red Dragon, I would imagine even if the hatch opened sideways, we could deploy a rolled up ramp like Pathfinder did, again, nothing super expensive, it only has to work once.

    The robotic selfie stick is an interesting idea, though I would still prefer a freely roving vehicle. The rover would have the advantage of being able to get much further away from the lander then an arm can and if supplied with instrumentation, can do work away from the landing site.

  • Gealon: NASA is supporting this mission to the tune of $30 million in return for entry data. They’ll likely get that regardless of whether the first Red Dragon lands successfully or makes a giant crater on the surface.

    That the science folks don’t want to spend limited funds on instruments that have a 50-50 chance of successfully landing is a prudent decision. These guys are really good at what the they do. I respect their judgment.

    You also can’t just throw together a rover from spare parts JPL might have sitting around in time for 2018. Building a rover isn’t that simple.

    Edward; the complaint about commercial crew is that while Boeing has a dedicated team on its program, SpaceX has people working on commercial crew and other programs as well. The impression is they’re not fully focused on the task at hand. Then when Musk goes off and launches this whole ITS plan it annoys people at NASA even more. And the 4,000 satellite constellation. And Red Dragon. They’re paying SpaceX billions of dollars for this program, but it seems to be only one of multiple priorities.

  • Edward

    Gealon,
    You wrote: “Though I would make improvements over the original design, rechargeable batteries for one

    You are thinking much bigger than I was. I was just going for the selfie, not exploration.

    D. Messier wrote: “NASA is supporting this mission to the tune of $30 million in return for entry data. They’ll likely get that regardless of whether the first Red Dragon lands successfully or makes a giant crater on the surface.

    The $30 million figure is the estimate for the resources and manpower to provide the technical assistance.
    http://spacenews.com/spacex-spending-about-300-million-on-red-dragon-mission/
    From the article: “Reuter said NASA estimates it will spend approximately $32 million over four years, primarily in the form of NASA personnel providing technical support for SpaceX.”

    NASA will get very valuable information without having to design, build, launch, and operate a hundreds-of-million dollars mission. It looks like they are spending ten cents on the dollar for this information.

    D. Messier wrote: “They’re paying SpaceX billions of dollars for this program, but it seems to be only one of multiple priorities.

    So people at NASA are willing to allow Boeing to grow in size but get annoyed when SpaceX does so?

    Dedicated team or not, both Boeing and SpaceX have multiple priorities; Boeing even has far more different programs to worry about than SpaceX does. Even as part of dedicated teams, at companies I worked for, I was called away from time to time to work on other projects that needed a little more assistance, whether the original team was working on a billions-of-dollars project or a millions-of-dollars project. There were even times when I worked on two teams at once, for months or years, but I was unaware of any concerns of lack of focus. Would NASA complain if SpaceX occasionally redirected extra effort to the commercial crew project? I doubt it.

    What both SpaceX and NASA need to be concerned about is whether SpaceX is making timely progress toward the final product, and that is why there are milestones, milestone payments (complete with penalties for missing milestone dates), and sometimes bonus payments for reaching milestones early. These are incentives to encourage the vendor (SpaceX) to be on schedule with a quality spacecraft.

    Apparently, some at NASA do not like the loss of control over their vendors. The beauty of the Space Act is that the vendors have more flexibility in how to fulfill their contracts, and this allows them to find cost and schedule savings. If NASA does not like this arrangement, it should write a more restrictive, less business-friendly contract, next time, or do away with the Space Act and return to paying high prices for its hired services. Robert and others have compared the costs of development of CRS rockets and spacecraft with other rockets and ISS-servicing spacecraft as well as comparing the costs of SLS and Orion with the commercial crew contracts. The cost savings are enormous, even if the control is reduced. The total cost of commercial crew program, development and 12 flights, is about 1/8 the cost of SLS and Orion development alone.

    The beauty of the situation with SpaceX is that in such a short time they have managed to grow from a launch provider to a spacecraft service provider, and now they are growing into the roles of providing manned space, deep space probes, and communications constellations. If they run into trouble, they are much more likely to sacrifice future revenue projects, such as Red Dragon or the constellation, in order to assure current revenues for existing contracts. If Musk runs his company differently than this, he will find it out of business in short order, but he has shown himself to be a sharp businessman, by being so successful with his four businesses, so that is unlikely to happen.

    The people at NASA should rest easy. Considering that commercial crew is SpaceX’s largest contract, they are unlikely to do anything to mess it up. If only Congress were as focused on this goal, rather than underfunding it.

  • ken anthony

    NASA is just a customer and SpaceX is just a vendor. Prices will reflect their history together. Each is free to do business however they like.

  • D. Messier

    > So people at NASA are willing to allow Boeing to grow in size but get annoyed when SpaceX does so?

    No. NASA also has issues with Boeing as well. But, lack of a dedicated team on the program is not one of them.

    Every time anyone brings up another remotely critical of SpaceX, the response is always well Boeing does this and that. It’s not that both companies haven’t suffered delays. It’s **why** they’ve suffered delays. There have been complaints about a lack of personnel and focus at SpaceX.

    > Dedicated team or not, both Boeing and SpaceX have multiple priorities; Boeing even has far more different programs to worry about than SpaceX does. Even as part of dedicated teams, at companies I worked for, I was called away from time to time to work on other projects that needed a little more assistance, whether the original team was working on a billions-of-dollars project or a millions-of-dollars project. There were even times when I worked on two teams at once, for months or years, but I was unaware of any concerns of lack of focus.

    > Well, so what? I’m telling you there have been concerns about SpaceX having a lack of focus and personnel on the program. That you didn’t experience doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen or isn’t happening here.

    > What both SpaceX and NASA need to be concerned about is whether SpaceX is making timely progress toward the final product, and that is why there are milestones, milestone payments (complete with penalties for missing milestone dates), and sometimes bonus payments for reaching milestones early.

    Well, yes. Do you think that’s actually happening? SpaceX just slipped commercial crew another six months from the last update which was six months ago. There are no penalties in this contract, nor any bonuses for finishing early.

  • Edward

    D. Messier,
    You wrote: “It’s **why** they’ve suffered delays.

    If that is the case, then why do other companies have delays on all their other projects, such as SLS, Orion, JWST, etc.?

    The answer is obvious to all in the space business. It is because development projects have a great tendency to develop delays. Anyone who is surprised that development of space hardware gets delayed isn’t paying attention to the space business. Although Orion, Dragon, and Starliner look like Apollo spacecraft, each is different. They are developing new technologies and using old technologies in new ways, and problems will happen.

    That is the most common reason for development delays.

    I have worked on plenty of space projects, and we worked to a different internal schedule than the schedule we gave to our customers. Often times, individual delays did not affect our publicly stated schedule, but sometimes they did. Schedule slip is so common that customers and launch sites even build in allowances for a certain amount of schedule slip. One satellite that I worked on was running so late that final assembly of a few parts took place at the launch site — and this was not a development project, it was a previously developed commercial satellite.

    To paraphrase the rude phrase: delays happen.

    Since Boeing’s Starliner is the closest project for comparison, please don’t act surprised that people compare and contrast the two companies or their programs. I could compare SpaceX’s Dragon with Lockheed’s Orion, too (and did, the day before yesterday).

    That you didn’t experience doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen or isn’t happening here.

    That NASA is concerned does not mean that it is an actual problem, it just means that NASA is not experiencing the usual ability to bully its vendor into obedience. Since delays are occurring in other programs that have similarities to this one tells us that a lack of personnel or focus is not the only reason for schedule slips — thus it does not have to be the reason for SpaceX’s slips.

    There are no penalties in this contract, nor any bonuses for finishing early.

    Which brings me back to my point three (the first point three), above. NASA’s priorities are all messed up. But then, what should we expect from a presidential administration that has left (to paraphrase Dr. Paul D. Spudis) an abundance of confusion in America’s space program?

    So, let’s assume that SpaceX doesn’t care when it completes its contracts for NASA. Because NASA and Congress did not express interest in timeliness back then and consistently underfunded the program throughout its lifetime, we all got the impression that they were not interested in schedule. Now they suddenly care? Now they suddenly are surprised at schedule slips that should have been expected?

    You also can’t just throw together a rover from spare parts JPL might have sitting around in time for 2018. Building a rover isn’t that simple.

    That’s why I liked my two non-rover ideas better. I also expected any rover that might be built to merely go a few feet just to take a single photo, not to rove Mars on a science mission. Any additional photos would be a bonus.

  • Gealon

    I would like to apologize for the lateness of this response, I am currently traveling for Christmas and did not have an opportunity to post until now. Doug, I’m sorry but it is my considered opinion that you are wrong on both counts regarding my previous post. First, I never said that if I were to build a rover for Red Dragon, that I would be using leftover JPL parts. Instead I would be using much cheaper, off the shelf components such as Stamp modules, stepper motors and commercially available lithium iron phosphate batteries. What I did say was that once we have a working platform, it would relatively easy to mount instrumentation on it in addition to the cameras. I only mentioned JPL and the APXS because at the time I was thinking of the Sojourner rover and it’s simplicity of design. I did not literally mean one could simply duct tape a leftover instrument or any other hardware for that matter, onto the rover and expect it to work. Second, I think you are greatly underestimating what a single, determined individual can do. Put a team of just as motivated individuals together and they can do great things.

    Let us look at my hypothetical river for instance. Boiled down, what is it? An insulated box, a solid state computer, power storage, a transceiver for control/communication, motive units for interacting with the environment, and sensors for gathering data. How is such a rover any different than a cube sat built by highschoolers/college students? I will answer my own question, it is no different. Both must ensure in low pressure environments, both must work reliably without external intervention and both must be able to return data. In fact the only differences between my hypothetical rover and a cube sat is that the rover will only have to be engineered to endure cold temperatures, as it will benefit from the protection provided by the Dragon, from high temperatures, while in space. It will also not have to deal having to control it’s orientation in three axis, since it is by nature, a ground vehicle. Further it will not have to consume a large portion of it’s power reserve communicating over long distances as it will make use of a short range RF transceiver and use the lander as a relay.

    Now you say that one could not possibly prepare the hardware by Red Dragon’s launch date. Well as I see it, that’s over a year from this posting. That seems like plenty of time to me. The most time consuming part of the venture might in fact be the design process as it would require collaboration with the SpaceX engineers. However actual hardware fabrication should not take more then a few months, the most difficult aspects being the milling of custom aluminum components such as the electronics box and suspension. Once all of the components are assembled however, testing is again an easy matter. Given the low cost and relative ease of procuring parts, one could in theory build several rovers at low cost and if faults are found in components or if a rover is irreparably damaged during testing, the parts/rovers can be easily and quickly replaced. In fact the low cost of the venture, I would hope, could make it extremely enticing to anyone launching

    Now I will acknowledge a few things, I am an engineer, not a bureaucrat immersed in the red tape of the industry, so I do not know how much of a delay said red tape will add into such a project’s timeline, I only know about the red tape in my own industry. My estimate of the time to completion is based solely on my experience with designing and building hardware. Second, I will also acknowledge that my intention to use off the shelf parts does mean that they will not be completely sterile. This is not an omission for the sake of expediency, it is for practicality. If we are going to go to Mars, our microbes are going to go there with us. I see no point in adding unnecessary delay to a project to sterilize the hardware if the object of the mission is not life detection. If the object was indeed life sciences related, then I could see the justification and offer the following. Simply keep the rover sealed within a hermetic container until after the life sciences portion of the mission has gathered it’s data. Once this has been accomplished, the rover can be released for ground operations.

    So in short, I will admit that my estimate for project completion may be optimistic considering I am not a member of the bureaucracy, and that opposition to unsterilized equipment might be encountered. However neither of these reasons impact the simple fact that workable hardware could be easily and cheaply fabricated in months, far short of the, more then a year, deadline for launch. A single engineer might not be able to coordinate with and deliver to SpaceX, a rover in that time, but a team of likewise, motivated engineers certainly could.

  • Edward:

    Of course all projects suffer delays.

    > That NASA is concerned does not mean that it is an actual problem,

    It does in this case. All the delays have cost NASA about a billion dollars or more in Soyuz seats. So, it’s a problem.

    it just means that NASA is not experiencing the usual ability to bully its vendor into obedience.

    It appears to be the other way around. As a taxpayer it bothers me that Musk is focused on a far away Mars mission while not focusing sufficiently on what I’m paying him to do.

    > Since delays are occurring in other programs that have similarities to this one tells us that a lack of personnel or focus is not the only reason for schedule slips — thus it does not have to be the reason for SpaceX’s slips.

    There’s the other problem. Boeing was starting from scratch. SpaceX had a cargo Dragon it was supposed to upgrade for crew. But, SpaceX is still barely ahead of Boeing. Delays happens isn’t sufficient to explain it.

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