In my last blog post I reported ex-NASA astronaut Tom Jones’s assertion Jones also asserted that the Obama administration’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is a “practical” mission that will be “less challenging and costly” than NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission. Jones also said the ARM will be a “meaningful” mission.
Last thing first: what’s “meaningful” is subjective. What’s meaningful to Jones is not necessarily meaningful to me. “Meaningful” is a loaded word – laden with ambiguity and uncertainty.
Next: is ARM a “practical” mission? If one assumes that human settlement of the solar system and commercial exploitation of its resources are “practical,” then, yes. If one does not accept these assumptions, then maybe the answer is no.
Now let’s discuss Jones’s claim that the ARM will be “less challenging and costly” than NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. First, let me say that it’s rather early on to be making such a comparison. The ARM is a concept at this point, and not very well fleshed out (see previous posts). MSL is an operating mission.
As to “challenging,” consider that NASA had built, landed, and operated a few rovers on Mars before it developed the MSL mission. MSL’s Curiosity rover had ancestors including the two Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity, both of which continued well past their planned mission lifetimes) and Mars Pathfinder. In addition, NASA had landed and operated other (non-roving) spacecraft on Mars, including the Phoenix polar lander and the twin Viking landers of the 1970s. And NASA has used a small fleet of Mars orbiters to collect data on Mars in support of these missions (planning and operations). Yes, MSL’s entry, descent, and landing system was new and complex. Other technical challenges for MSL included the size and mass of the rover, the number and complexity of its science investigations, and its new radioisotope thermoelectric generator.
While NASA and others have flown robotic missions to asteroids and comets, no one has tried to grab and move one. And NEO experts have learned in recent years that NEOs are far from uniform objects. Mars is Mars. Every possible NEO capture target is different from the next one, and none are fully characterized as yet.
As to mission costs, a 2011 report from NASA’s Inspector General, “NASA’s Management of the Mars Science Laboratory Project,” provides some history of MSL’s costs. At launch time in 2011, NASA’s stated life-cycle cost for MSL was $2.5 billion. MSL originally was scheduled to launch in 2009, but technical problems dictated postponing the launch.
According to the IG’s report, “The delay and the additional resources required to resolve the underlying technical issues increased the Project’s development costs by 86 percent, from $969 million to the current  $1.8 billion, and its life-cycle costs by 56 percent, from $1.6 billion [in August 2006] to the current $2.5 billion.” If the launch had been delayed to 2013, mission costs would have increased further, “at least by the $570 million that would be required to redesign the mission to account for differences in planetary alignment and the Martian dust storm season.”
A few more details about MSL’s history: formulation and design of the mission stretched from September 2003 to September 2006, at which time NASA produced a life-cycle cost estimate of $1.6 billion; final design, fabrication, integration and testing proceeded from September 2006 to launch in 2011; NASA increased its life-cycle cost estimate to $2.3 billion in June 2009, $2.4 billion in January 2010, and $2.5 billion in November 2010.
The IG’s report noted that the MSL team’s 2010 cost estimate might have been “insufficient to ensure timely completion of the Project in light of the historical pattern of cost increases and the amount of work that remains to be completed before launch. For example, when NASA rescheduled the launch to 2011, Project managers estimated the cost to complete development at $400 million and maintained $95 million of unallocated reserve at the Program level. However, this level of reserve turned out to be insufficient, and the estimated cost to complete development was increased by $137 million, from $400 million to $537 million, in December 2010. Our analysis of the Project’s current estimate to complete development indicates that even the $537 million figure may be too low. Our analysis is based on the earned value management system budget data and estimates of the additional work that will be needed to address unknowns. We estimate that $581 million may be required – $44 million more than management’s latest estimate.”
I don’t know whether NASA has updated its MSL life-cycle cost since the mission’s 2011 launch and 2012 landing.
My five cents worth on comparing MSL and ARM: they are not simply apples and oranges, they are a fish and a bicycle.
I would note one observation in the IG’s report on MSL that is pertinent to the ARM: “Historically, NASA has found the probability that schedule-impacting problems will arise is commensurate with the complexity of the project.”
Meetings of NEO experts earlier this month (see previous posts) featured discussions about the cost of the ARM. An estimate of $1 billion (NASA’s “floor” for a flagship-scale mission) is floating around. Most experts at those meetings agreed that this number is way too low. No one at these meetings described the ARM as a simple mission.
The April 2012 Keck Institute for Space Studies “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study”—from whence the ARM concept apparently sprang – estimates that “the first ACR [asteroid capture and retrieval] mission including DDT&E [design, development, testing, and evaluation] plus the first unit, launch services, mission operations, government insight/oversight, and reserves is estimated at $2.6 billion” (pp. 12-13). “The first ACR mission would deliver asteroid material to high lunar orbit at a cost in $/kg that would roughly be a factor of 8 cheaper than costs for launching that mass from the ground. The recurring cost for subsequent missions is estimated at approximately $1 [billion]” (p. 13).
According to the KISS study, NASA estimates that launching mass from Earth to high lunar orbit costs about $100,000 per kilogram. Launching 500 tons of mass from Earth to high lunar orbit thus would cost $20 billion. Capturing a 500-ton asteroid and returning it to high lunar orbit for resource exploitation would, theoretically, cost less.
What’s not clear to me is what demand exists for extraterrestrial resources. The feasibility and cost of mining extraterrestrial resources, processing them into useful products, and storing them in space is also not clear. For practical purposes, such as lining up project financing, it may be unknown.
Though there is some discussion of these matters on page 39 of the KISS study, it notes, “Further development of equipment for effecting mineral separation on asteroids…could await both experience with the first retrieved asteroid and laboratory investigations on meteorite samples.”
It appears that the KISS study team simply assumed future demand and considered the costs of resource extraction, processing, and storage beyond the scope of its study. (KISS team, please correct me if I’m wrong.)
Asteroid People, you have a lot of work to do!