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Rising launch costs could curtail NASA science missions

Posted: April 4, 2011

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Already faced with a potentially flat budget over the next half-decade, scientists and managers overseeing NASA's robotic science probes worry rising and volatile rocket launch prices could further limit the agency's ability to explore the solar system and maintain crucial climate research.

File photo of an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance
Rising launch costs could claim a larger slice of a mission's budget, increasing the price of projects geared for planetary science, astrophysics and Earth observations, according to senior NASA officials.

With the federal government's spotlight on spending cuts, it isn't likely NASA will get a budget boost to offset the launch costs, which experts say are triggered by inefficient rocket buying practices, an eroding commercial market, and uncertainty about the future of the space program.

That leaves NASA with just one option: fly fewer missions.

NASA uses a fleet of launch vehicles to deploy satellites. The agency often selects the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 booster to launch solar system missions and large climate research spacecraft.

But the Atlas 5 is overkill for many small and medium-class NASA spacecraft, unnecessarily raising the overall cost of missions. The phasing out of the smaller and less expensive Delta 2 rocket leaves NASA with no other proven launch vehicles for those probes.

The last Atlas launcher chosen by NASA was for the MAVEN mission to Mars scheduled to lift off in November 2013. The $187 million contract was announced in October and provides for launch on an Atlas 5-401 booster, the rocket's most basic configuration with no solid rocket boosters, a 4-meter payload fairing and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

Three years before NASA announced the MAVEN launch contract, the space agency signed a deal to lift the next Landsat remote sensing satellite on the same version of the Atlas 5 rocket for $124 million.

Lynn Cline, deputy associate administrator for NASA's space operations mission directorate, told an agency advisory panel last month the cost of the Atlas 5-401 is expected to rise by 17 percent over MAVEN's $187 million contract value for launches in 2016 and 30 percent for missions in 2018.

The problem is so severe that Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth science division, has urged climate research projects to design their spacecraft to fit on smaller rockets than the Atlas 5 and pretend as if larger boosters don't exist in the United States, he told the NASA Advisory Council's science committee in March.

The skyrocketing launch costs are part of the NASA Launch Services contract signed last year. The NLS agreement with four companies, which follows up a similar expiring contract, covers rocket flight opportunities for NASA spacecraft over the next 10 years.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
A previous NLS contract expired last year and held provisions for heavily discounted rocket costs due to projections of a more robust U.S. commercial launch services market when it was signed in 2000.

"The expectation at that time was there was a large commercial market," Cline said. "That did not materialize. As opposed to government being a secondary customer buying on the margin, government became the primary customer."

With government as the anchor customer, marginal launch costs for NASA and the Air Force are on the rise.

"Rocket costs are going crazy and mostly up," said Steve Squyres, a respected planetary scientist and chair of a panel of researchers that issued recommendations in March for NASA to address the possibility of a declining budget matched against rising launch prices.

Squyres led the National Research Council's planetary science decadal survey, an independent report ranking a slate of robotic solar system missions for the next 10 years.

"Launch vehicle costs are high," Squyres said. "They're growing. They're growing in a somewhat volatile and unpreditable fashion. They're becoming an increasingly large fraction of the cost of planetary missions, which is a trend we view with some alarm."

The NASA Launch Services contract includes the Atlas 5 rocket from ULA, Falcon launchers from SpaceX, the Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus XL and Taurus XL boosters, and the Athena rocket family from Lockheed Martin.

Cline said the Falcon 9 rocket, while not as capable as the Atlas 5, is considerably less costly.

But the Falcon 9 rocket, privately designed and tested by SpaceX, does not yet meet NASA's stringent certification standards for its most precious science missions.

"We are anxious to do that as soon as we can," Cline said.

The current certification standard calls for a launch vehicle to accumulate three successful flights in a common configuration, including at least two consecutive successful missions.

The Falcon 9 rocket reached orbit in its first two test flights in 2010. The next Falcon 9 mission is scheduled for this summer, and it's improbable the SpaceX rocket could be certified before then.

In a report released in February, NASA's inspector general concluded the Falcon 9 rocket is not likely to be ready to launch the agency's unmanned science missions until late 2013 or 2014.

File photo of a Minotaur 4 rocket. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now
The NLS contract also includes provisions for other rockets to "on-ramp" into the program. The Taurus 2 rocket, an Orbital Sciences competitor to the Falcon 9, should on-ramp by the end of 2011, according to Cline.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are developing the Falcon 9 and Taurus 2 boosters to resupply the International Space Station for NASA, but both vehicles will also be able to launch scientific research satellites and commercial payloads.

ULA could also return the Delta 2 rocket to the NASA market by adding it to the new NLS contract, which did not initially include the venerable Delta 2, Cline said.

NASA has balked at purchasing any of the five remaining unsold Delta 2 rockets because the agency would have to assume high overhead and support costs for continuing the program, which is now due to retire by the end of 2011. The U.S. Air Force has moved its launches to the larger Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.

"Time is running out for the Delta 2," Cline said.

Another option is the Air Force's Minotaur rocket powered by recycled Minuteman and Peacekeeper missile stages. But the Commercial Space Act of 1998 prevents NASA from using Minotaur rockets without the consent of the Secretary of Defense.

NASA secured that approval when it picked a Minotaur 5 rocket to dispatch the agency's LADEE mission to the moon in 2013. The February inspector general report endorsed the Minotaur for medium-class NASA payloads until a suitable, affordable alternative is available, saying the Minotaur would save the government more than $60 million over Falcon or Atlas rockets if selected for the launch of the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, Earth observation mission in 2014.

Scientists say it's time for NASA to get creative to solve the launch cost dilemma.

NASA should return to buying launch vehicles in bulk instead of one at a time, according to the planetary science decadal survey. Such a move would signal a return to the former NASA practice of block buys of the Delta 2 rocket.

"If you buy several rockets at once, maybe you can get a deal," Squyres said.

Although technical and programmatic issues could stand in the way, researchers recommended launching more satellites in groups, sharing rocket costs among two or more projects.

And NASA should invest in technologies to reduce the mass of satellites and deep space probes, allowing them to blast off on smaller, less expensive rockets.