A big question these days, when mission costs can often spiral and there is less money around is…what space mission stays and which ones get cut?
Agencies (NASA and ESA as an example) can put out bids for future missions where preliminary (or sometimes called pre-Phase A) studies and evaluations are carried out.
But then nothing more happens. The drive or the money or both disappears. Sometimes it is a re-direction of money to an existing project. Other times it seems almost like there was “just a feeling” about a certain mission.
That it was pushing the time, cost and quality triad to breaking point in its vision.
It’s interesting then to read about how NASA is having a serious rethink about planetary probe space missions, in its work with the White House Office of Managment and Budget (OMB). Funding for science missions is pencilled in to drop by about $300M by 2016 and this is going to have an impact.
It seems from the tone that space science missions would have to make their case pretty well to be included in the funding. And if there were some untested technologies to boot, sending the perceived risk up, then this could become quite a task.
Yet this is not a new development.
The Juptier Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission, with ion propulsion, springs to mind. The mission was cancelled and funds redirected elsewhere. Some of the technology, including the nuclear power generator, were maybe controversial. However, the debate as to whether this has stalled proper deep space ion propulsion using nuclear power is for another day.
The key point is that there is always a fight to get onto missions or to keep a space science mission funded. And by their nature planetary probe missions are risky, even though they have the potential to capture the general public’s imagination.
Often space science missions include new and cutting-edge technology. Risk gets mulitplied.
And with budget cuts, lack of credit, rising insurance costs and whatever else you want to throw in, risk aversion is popular.
Another point though is that the cost of projects is spiralling…but not the underlying cost of the technology. I went to the 2009 IEPC in Michigan and got to hear ex-director Leonard Fisk talk about NASA’s future space program. In particular the Aries rocket program.
He made a salient point: a repeat mission using the same designs and technology (itself now cheaper, lighter and faster) was costed at 4 times the price of the original, built a decade before.
Even with inflation and indexing that is a massive increase in price. Why?
More administration. More managers. More bureaucracy. Paperwork it seems is becoming the most powerful force keeping missions on the ground.
So will economics determine planetary probe space missions? It always does and I don’t think it will change. Will more missions be bogged down in paperwork with spiralling cost? Probably.