NASA Has a Problem Calculating – and Admitting – What Space Missions Really Cost

By Keith Cowing
June 3, 2005
Filed under ,
NASA Has a Problem Calculating – and Admitting – What Space Missions Really Cost

Editor’s note: NASA issued a press release yesterday regarding the Mars Phoenix Lander mission. I had some serious issues with what was – and what was not included in the press release with regard to the actual cost of the mission.

So, instead of just shooting my mouth off, I sent a formal query to Dolores Beasley and Guy Webster, the NASA PAO officials listed as contacts, and waited for their reply before posting anything. I got a reply this afternoon from Dolores Beasley – to which I have added some comments. The original press release is included below.

NASA Watch Question 1: “Does the $386 million figure in this press release include the money spent to develop the 2001 Mars Surveyor Lander prior to its cancellation/mothballing?”

NASA answer: No.

Editor’s comment: Then why does NASA post verbiage in public statements such as “The cost of the Phoenix mission is $386 million, which includes the launch.”? This is downright misleading. Indeed it is blatantly false. The Phoenix mission will cost much, much more than $386 million. The 2001 Mars Surveyor Lander hardware was not free. This is particularly annoying when, a few sentences later, NASA tries to convince the reader that some cost saving is going on here i.e. “… the cost-saving adaptation of earlier missions’ technology…” and “Scouts are innovative and relatively low-cost complements to the core missions of the agency’s Mars exploration program.”

In a 2003 press release, NASA PAO said “The Mars Scout program is designed to complement major missions being planned as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, as well as those under development by foreign space agencies, within a total mission cost cap of $325 million.” As such, NASA PAO has also neglected to mention that at a stated cost of $386 million, Phoenix will exceed the original Mars Scout cost cap of $325 million by $61 million. To be certain, inflation accounts for some of the cost increase over the course of several years, but not all of it.

To be certain, it is really nice to see that this hardware can get used, but trying to hide the real cost – and at the same trying to convince the public that there is a bargain to be had – is simply wrong.

NASA Watch Question 2: “How much money was spent on the instruments originally developed for the 2001 Mars Surveyor Lander which will now be used on Phoenix?”

NASA answer: “The instruments that are related to Phoenix are derived from MPL. (MECA is from the 2001 lander)”

Editor’s comment: My question was not answered.

NASA Watch Question 3: “How much money was spent on the overall 2001 Mars Surveyor Lander project until the point at which it was mothballed?”

NASA answer: “The total development budget for the Mars Surveyor 2001 project was $283M (not including the launch vehicle). The budget included costs for the lander, which was cancelled in March 2000. Since the 2001 orbiter and lander were considered a single project, costs for the orbiter and lander were not separately kept.”

Editor’s comment: On one hand I find it utterly astonishing that NASA does not have a number – even a high level one – that they can provide me as to what 2001 Mars Surveyor Lander cost. Then again, it was developed during the height of Faster-Better-Cheaper mania when people did their utmost to make things cheaper – or at least appear to be cheaper. Nonetheless, the fact that NASA cannot tell me what a mission cost – especially now that all the bills have long since been paid, is troubling to say the least. This also serves as proof that NASA’s IFMP is still very, very broken.

NASA Watch Question 4: “How much money was spent to keep the hardware in climate controlled storage between the time the 2001 mission was cancelled and the Phoenix project began?”

NASA answer: “Lockheed Martin charged a storage rate, but I don’t have that number.”

Editor’s comment: Doesn’t anyone at NASA know how much Lockheed Martin charged them to store a spacecraft for the better part of a decade? Someone at NASA cut them a check – at least once a year, yes?

Original Press Release

Guy Webster (818) 354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Dolores Beasley (202) 358-1753
NASA Headquarters, Washington     

Lori Stiles (520) 626-4402
University of Arizona, Tucson

NASA’s Mars Phoenix Mars Mission Begins Launch Preparations

NASA has given the green light to a project to put a long-armed lander on to the icy ground of the far-northern Martian plains. NASA’s Phoenix lander is designed to examine the site for potential habitats for water ice, and to look for possible indicators of life, past or present.

Today’s announcement allows the Phoenix mission to proceed with preparing the spacecraft for launch in August 2007. This major milestone followed a critical review of the project’s planning progress and preliminary design, since its selection in 2003.

Phoenix is the first project in NASA’s Mars Scout Program of competitively selected missions. Scouts are innovative and relatively low-cost complements to the core missions of the agency’s Mars exploration program.

“The Phoenix Mission explores new territory in the northern plains of Mars analogous to the permafrost regions on Earth,” said the project’s principal investigator, Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “NASA’s confirmation supports this project and may eventually lead to discoveries relating to life on our neighboring planet.”

Phoenix is a stationary lander. It has a robotic arm to dig down to the Martian ice layer and deliver samples to sophisticated analytical instruments on the lander’s deck. It is specifically designed to measure volatiles, such as water and organic molecules, in the northern polar region of Mars. In 2002, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter found evidence of ice-rich soil very near the surface in the arctic regions.

Like its namesake, Phoenix rises from ashes, carrying the legacies of two earlier attempts to explore Mars. The 2001 Mars Surveyor lander, administratively mothballed in 2000, is being resurrected for Phoenix. Many of the scientific instruments for Phoenix were built or designed for that mission or flew on the unsuccessful Mars Polar Lander in 1999.

“The Phoenix team’s quick response to the Odyssey discoveries and the cost-saving adaptation of earlier missions’ technology are just the kind of flexibility the Mars Scout Program seeks to elicit,” said NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Director, Doug McCuistion.

“Phoenix revives pieces of past missions in order to take NASA’s Mars exploration into an exciting future,” said NASA’s Director, Solar System Division, Science Mission Directorate, Andrew Dantzler. The cost of the Phoenix mission is $386 million, which includes the launch. The partnership developing the Phoenix mission includes the University of Arizona; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver; and the Canadian Space Agency, which is providing weather-monitoring instruments.

“The confirmation review is an important step for all major NASA missions,” said JPL’s Barry Goldstein, project manager for Phoenix. “This approval essentially confirms NASA’s confidence that the spacecraft and science instruments will be successfully built and launched, and that once the lander is on Mars, the science objectives can be successfully achieved.”

Much work lies ahead. Team members will assemble and test every subsystem on the spacecraft and science payload to show they comply with design requirements. Other tasks include selecting a landing site, which should be aided by data provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launching in August, and preparing to operate the spacecraft after launch.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages Phoenix for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. For information about NASA and agency programs on the Web, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/home/index.html

For information about the Phoenix Mission to Mars on the Web, visit: http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.