The cost of delaying the Mars InSight mission two years

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NASA now estimates that it will cost about $150 million to delay the troubled InSight Mars lander two years until 2018 in order to fix the spacecraft’s primary instrument.

The extra money has to come out of the planetary program, which suggests that NASA will be forced to only fund one new planetary mission this year rather than the hoped-for two.


  • Steve Earle

    “…..Banerdt says that Sodern, the French company subcontracted to build a vacuum container to enclose the seismometer’s sensors, did not detect problems with connectors that are supposed to seal wires leading out of the vacuum housing. Only when the instrument was tested in frigid, Mars-like temperatures in December did cracks in those seals become apparent. The project team tried to patch the problem, but persistent leaks remained….”

    So they were building an instrument to send to Mars and they don’t test it for Martian temperatures??

    Sounds to me that they should cough up the 150 million, not NASA (in other words, US taxpayers…)

  • pzatchok

    That 159million isn’t just for the instrument fix.

    They have to keep ALL the critical people associated with the mission on the payroll until the new end of mission date. Plus the office space and ground equipment.
    Otherwise they could go off and find other better jobs and not be around when needed for the mission in two years.

  • Edward

    Pzatchok is right. Plus there are storage costs, including the cost to verify that all is still in good condition (working properly) as the new launch date approaches.

    I would expect that much of the “standing army” could be redeployed onto short-term projects, which may have reduced the cost estimate to an amount that NASA was willing to pay rather than cancel the mission.

    We can see, however, that resources are being diverted from other useful science missions.

    The article says: “NASA has asked the JPL to craft a new, hardier vacuum chamber. …

    “‘The word on the street is that NASA’s a little more wary of collaborating with groups that they don’t know so well or don’t control directly,’ says Elkins-Tanton.

    “But Green argues that any nation trying to build a new instrument could have made this mistake.’This is the first time this type of instrument has been built to withstand harsh environmental conditions on another planet,’ he says.”

    I lean a little more toward Elkins-Tanton’s way of thinking. My experience is that different teams have different levels of knowledge and abilities. Since JPL is being asked to remake the vacuum chamber part of the instrument, we can conclude that NASA believes the JPL team has better ability to succeed than the team led by the Paris institute.

    Green does have a point. Other countries will have a harder time learning to avoid the pitfalls of space instrument design and manufacture if they are not hired to do make such instruments. I have worked on teams that learned important lessons that undoubtedly had been previously learned by other teams at other companies or institutions.

    On whether NASA should be collaborating with groups that NASA doesn’t know so well, I think the question to answer is: is it worth the additional cost to the American taxpayer in order to expand the world’s future space capabilities? (Remember the opportunity cost, the lost science opportunity due to the extra expense — that which is not seen — hat tip to Bastiat.)

  • pzatchok

    Besides the fact that the US is paying for it. I would rather the US keep the manufacturing ‘in house’ so to say.

    We are in effect thinning out the knowledge pool by spreading things out all over the world.

    For one those nations will never spend what we do on space, so we will have to keep paying them to keep their knowledge base up to snuff. As soon as we stop spending in their nations their skills and knowledge go away.

    In this case we might have had the only testing facility large enough for a piece of equipment like this. So in order to test it they would have had to send it back here several times during its construction.
    Or they could have built the facility. Which we would end up paying for anyway.
    Or they could build it and hope all goes well with the first test.

  • pzatchok

    I was thinking that they could fix it one of two ways.

    One. Not worry about keeping a vacuum all the time and just use a good vacuum pump on it when needed.

    Or totally seal the whole thing inside a vacuum box and use magnetic induction to charge internal batteries and either magnetic induction to pass data out of the box or blue tooth. Thus just the one hole for establishing the vacuum. And I know how to get rid of even that VERY cheaply.

  • Steve Earle

    Yes, I understand that the 150 million includes the various associated costs of delay, however that delay would not have been necessary if the instrument had been designed and manufactured correctly…..

    The entire extra cost is a result of the French companies screwup and they, not us (taxpayers) should be held responsible for the direct consequences of their actions.

    With so much at stake, I would hope they carried some sort of insurance policy. If not, then that is a good reason to never do business with them ever again.

    And I agree, we should not be in the knowledge-redistribution business. I guess along with “Muslim Outreach” this is another of NASA’s new missions?

  • Edward


    When I wrote the question, I was thinking of arguments for both sides. I do agree that US taxpayers would be better served paying US workers rather than foreign workers, but a counter argument is that additional competition creates conditions for better bids on these instruments. If we keep hiring the same US companies and universities to make space instruments, the vendor pool remains small.

    Another argument is that as the leader in space development, it is our responsibility to develop other leaders: a navy veteran taught me that good leaders develop other leaders. Spreading the knowledge pool around the world is a generally good thing.

    I can see, however, why US taxpayers would want to keep the knowledge “in house.” We paid for it, we should be the ones to benefit from our expense. I have a similar peeve with the way NASA administers the ISS. The NASA policy is that Companies/universities only get five years to benefit from their results, because after that their results become public domain — including for foreign countries.

    Two decades ago, the US outspent the rest of the world on space related projects by 2 to 1. I do not know what it is now, but I am confident that this country is still the leader in space spending, and it could be a very long time before any other country catches up. However, some nations are now committed to being in the space business. France, Germany, India, Japan, and — of course — Russia and China. These countries have robust space programs, and other countries are working toward similarly robust space programs. It may behoove us to assist — even if it costs us extra to pay for their mistakes.

    Steve wrote: “The entire extra cost is a result of the French companies screwup and they, not us (taxpayers) should be held responsible for the direct consequences of their actions. With so much at stake, I would hope they carried some sort of insurance policy. If not, then that is a good reason to never do business with them ever again.”

    Good points, but not entirely workable.

    US companies also have similar screwups, and some of them are far more costly than this one. This is why Green’s point is so valid. As an example, it is a US company that is having the trouble with their cryocooler that is delaying the James Webb Space Telescope. The cost of this delay is in the billions of dollars, and a lot of other science missions are not being funded because of it. If that company were required to pay for these costs, then they would have to get out of the development business for NASA hardware — and all other companies would also stop developing hardware for NASA, and any other agency, company, or institution that had similar policies. Most progress would come to a screaching halt, and the US leadership role in space would probably crash and burn.

    As with most things that you buy, as a consumer, the liability is usually limited to the cost of the purchase, not the adverse affects that happen when the item fails to work properly. This “buyer beware” attitude puts the onus on the buyer to make sure the manufacturer is a quality operation.

    This is why the article says: “The word on the street is that NASA’s a little more wary of collaborating with groups that they don’t know so well or don’t control directly.” NASA did not necessarily have enough history with the manufacturer to know the quality of their work, and they did not have enough control to tell them how to (or more correctly: how not to) build their instrument. In a very real way, this is on NASA for trying an untried vendor. This could even hurt US companies trying to get into the space business, but it may put more pressure on companies (both US and foreign) to not screw up.

    The insurance policy is a good idea, and many commercial satellite operators and satellite/spacecraft manufacturers (and launch companies) purchase policies. Operators make claims (all too often, as insurance rates are shockingly high) for satellites that have failed on orbit or were lost during launch*. Manufacturers also have accidents, from damage due to something bumping into the satellite to satellites falling onto the floor(!). Once again, insurance companies also tend to only pay for the cost of the repair or replacement, not for the costs associated with the delay.

    The government, however, tends to “self insure” — does not purchase insurance — and will either pay out of pocket for repairs or replacement, or they will cancel the mission.

    The purpose of insurance is to cover costs that are too much for the person taking the loss. Few people have enough money to replace a house or to pay for cancer or heart treatments and surgeries, so these insurances are common and well worth the administrative costs. The government, however, has enough money to cover problems with its purchases, so buying insurance would only cost more in the long term.

    The real answer is to make sure that there are not problems, just as the answer is to make sure you don’t burn down your house. Fortunately, you are better at avoiding fires than space companies are at avoiding engineering problems. Or, maybe that is unfortunate, as we wish the space companies did as well as you do.

    * I once worked on a couple of satellites that a launch provider was paying for, because they self insured a launch that failed.

  • pzatchok

    There are ways to work out payments to contractor companies.

    The German roads are paid for by the government but they place a large portion of those payments into an escrow account. That escrow account is then used to pay for any repairs before the guarantee date.
    Any left over monies go to the contractor after the guarantee date passes.

    Lets say Boeing contracts to build a passenger capsule for space flight.
    They guarantee first flight for2018.
    They miss the date. Due to their own problems both foreseen or unseen. Not acts of nature or God.
    To include failure of the whole concept or design. They find they can not do what they promised is their failure not the governments.
    They give up all paid for materials and research plus any escrow monies.

    Either make the guaranteed date or just stop making bids for government work.

    I demand no less from anyone I make a contract with, why should my government accept any excuse to extend contract dates and building goals?

    In this case because there was and absolute launch date the government should have taken out insurance to cover missing it.
    Do you know why that would be a good thing?
    Its because the insurance companies would set rates according to the chance of success. If they raised the rates higher its for a reason and NASA should be looking into a way to lower those rates. Either set easier goals, hire better contractors or suck it up, make the payments and live with it.

    It would be nice to call up Lloyds of London to ask why they raised the insurance rates on the next Mars mission. They would give it to us straight with out any BS.

  • Edward

    Pzatchok wrote: “Its because the insurance companies would set rates according to the chance of success. If they raised the rates higher its for a reason and NASA should be looking into a way to lower those rates. Either set easier goals, hire better contractors or suck it up, make the payments and live with it.”

    A nice solution. I do see a bit of a problem, however. Insurance companies like to make sure that companies are not being careless, just because they are insured, so they sometimes have a bit of a say in the behavior of the insured. Driving discounts are an excellent example — if you don’t get tickets and don’t get into accidents; they offer discounts, specifically to encourage better driving. Insurance companies are better assured when their insured companies pass fire inspections, food safety inspections, and other such regulatory actions.

    However, NASA is already considered the expert in the space business, so the insurance companies don’t really have anyone more authoritative to make sure that insured space companies are already doing enough to be safe insurance “bets.” Plus, NASA has a very real interest in hiring companies that don’t screw up. The problem in the article of this post presents them with the likely loss of a future mission. For NASA to pay the administration fees of an insurance company would not produce much better results, and would only result in yet another standing army of bean counters being paid, except these bean counters would be hidden behind the wall of the insurance company. This standing army would reduce the funds available for future (or present) missions.

    This problem is specifically why the article says that NASA seems to be considering changing its business practices to either not hire untried companies (limiting their future sources) or to watch them closer (adding additional inspectors and bean counters).

    If we cannot trust our vendors to do the job right, then we have this very problem. It is difficult for you to watch over your car mechanic all the time, so you look for one who does the job right the first time. The learning process is generally expensive, as you go from one incompetent to the next.

    SpaceX may be a good example. They hired a company to make struts, and it seems that SpaceX trusted that the struts were tested at the vendor. Not retesting the struts, and every other item that they buy out of house, saved them a lot of money. One lost payload later, SpaceX has a tarnished reputation, several disappointed customers, possibly a slipped Falcon Heavy schedule (and at least one lost customer) while resources were diverted from that future product to fix the current product, reduced revenue, and lost time in attempting to reuse launch vehicles and in attempting to ramp up their launch schedule — further reducing revenues.

    There are no insurance policies available that can fix all those problems.

    For NASA, if they keep rejecting vendors for future hire, they eventually will end up with only one vendor for all its missions. Then what do they do when their last vendor screws up something? There must be some amount of tolerance of screw ups due to the nature of continually making advancements in the state of the art.

    Cars, radios, and other consumer goods can be made by the thousands, because the problems of the new product have already been worked out, but NASA does not buy too many of the same product. Otherwise, NASA would still be sending generic Mariners to the planets and Vikings to Mars instead of probes designed to explore the specific phenomena of each planet. As new instruments are developed, then the problems associated with their development keep coming up. As with consumer products, delays happen, but unlike consumer products, NASA’s delays are published in the news.

    For Lloyds of London to insure for lost opportunity costs (e.g. the $150 million NASA will lose and would need in order to add the lost science mission back into the manifest) would make the insurance very pricey. Imagine Lloyds of London having to pay out the many, many billions of dollars being lost due to delays and other problems being experienced by the James Webb Space Telescope. It makes me shudder to think of the future premiums that would have to be paid to insure space missions. And the insurance costs on commercial satellites is already very, very high.

    Your homeowner’s insurance costs you about 0.3% of the value of your house. Your auto insurance is about 3% of the value of your car. Satellite insurance runs in the order of magnitude of 30% of the cost of the satellite and the launch costs (the insurance rates vary from year to year depending upon claims the prior year — but then again, I just received a check from my homeowner’s insurance company of about 25% due to lower than expected claims last year). This is why some large satellite operators self insure — they have a lower loss rate than this.

    So it seems that NASA is going to react by choosing the vendors it knows are reliable or by watching the new ones much more closely.

    Which brings us to the road contractors:
    NASA and the DoD (and even many satellite operators and satellite manufacturers — and your home remodeling contractor, for that matter) already have a similar method of payment in place. They pay by the milestone. When the satellite is complete, the final payment comes due after the satellite checks out on orbit. The reduction of the final payment for on-orbit problems would be worked out in the contract.

    Milestone payments is why Kistler went out of business, after they got an early contract (COTS) for the commercial resupply program. They were unable to accomplish their milestones, and NASA terminated their funding. Just as with the German roads department, making milestones is one way that NASA makes sure that what they are buying is most likely to work as intended.

  • Edward

    On thinking about it overnight, I may have been a bit unfair or misleading on the cost of insurance for satellites as compared to your auto insurance.

    On average, a car is owned for about seven years, which means that the total insurance paid on it is around 20% of the purchase price. This puts your total auto insurance costs in the same order of magnitude as a commercial communication satellite’s purchase and launch costs.

    On the other hand, you and your car are covered for liability as well as collision (damage to or loss of your car), while the satellite is covered only for the equivalent of collision.

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