More “InSight” into Launch Costs

Maven Launch  Credit : NASA

Maven Launch
Credit : NASA

On December 19th,  NASA awarded the launch contract for the 2016 Mars Insight Mission to United Launch Alliance,  to be carried out aboard an Atlas V 401, for $160 million.  The award is interesting for a number of reasons.

In the first place, ULA does not like to reveal  its launch prices if there  any way to avoid doing so. Fortunately however,  NASA does include pricing when it announces launch awards,  providing useful data points which are very hard to come by  in determining just why EELV launches conducted under the Air Force program are so outrageously expensive, coming in at approximately  $420 million per launch in 2012.

At the $160 million figure for the most basic form of the Atlas, which has a 4 meter payload fairing and no strap-on boosts, and one upper stage RL-10 engine, hence  the “4-0-1” designation,  ULA has achieved a  cost reduction of roughly 10% (excluding inflation) compared to the similarly configured  MAVEN mission to Mars which was awarded in 2010 for $178 million and launch on November 18th.

Another recent award, for the 2016 launch of  NASA’s Osiris-REx mission to be conducted aboard an Atlas V 411;  equipped with the same 4 meter payload fairing and single RL-10 upper stage engine as a 401, but also including a single solid rocket strap-on booster to improve liftoff performance, came in at $183.5 million.

By comparison, the only NASA science mission award granted to SpaceX thus far, is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Jason-3 satellite,  for which NASA is the procuring agency.  The launch price for Jason-3, which was awarded in July 2012 and is scheduled to lift off in early 2015, is $82 million.

With each science mission being unique, and offering different challenges for payload integration,  it is not possible to draw an absolute price comparison between any two. Nevertheless, the enormous price spread between the Atlas V and Falcon 9 boosters gives an indication of what the agency could expect to gain in savings at whatever point the SpaceX booster becomes certified to launch NASA’s highest risk payloads.

To understand why this matters, take a look at this Wired article from November, which details how a budget strapped NASA Science Mission Directorate is debating whether to cancel the ongoing operations of either the Saturn Cassini mission ($60 million) or the Mars Curiosity mission ($50 million)  in order to live within its budget.  Notably both are substantially less than the difference between the two competing boosters. While there are certainly other places in the NASA budget where some might suggest looking for spare change under the sofa, the NLS awards are relevant precisely because it is one of the few areas where a mechanism is already in place to achieve savings.

That is not to second guess NASA’s Launch Services Program regarding the Insight or other recent awards, or its launch qualification criteria, but to emphasize that launch  costs matter, and the sooner the Falcon 9 reaches qualification, the better. It’s next opportunity will come with the launch of Thaicom-6, now scheduled for January 3rd.

Here is the NASA Press Release:

NASA Press Release

CONTRACT RELEASE C13-053
NASA Awards Launch Services Contract for InSight Mission

NASA has selected United Launch Services LLC of Centennial, Colo., to launch the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to Mars.

InSight will launch in March 2016 aboard an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The total cost for NASA to launch InSight is approximately $160 million, including spacecraft processing, payload integration, tracking, data and telemetry and other launch support requirements.

InSight is scheduled to land on Mars in September 2016 to begin a two-year science mission. InSight is a lander that will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science — understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system more than 4 billion years ago. The mission will investigate the interior structure and processes of Mars to understand better the evolution of rocky planets such as Earth. InSight will perform this science using two instrument packages.

NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for management and oversight of the Atlas V launch services. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., provides management for the InSight mission. United Launch Services, LLC operates as a subsidiary of United Launch Alliance.

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1 Comment on "More “InSight” into Launch Costs"

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  1. Michael says:

    This is of particular interest to me, as I had also noticed the ULA launch cost in the NASA press release. It’s nice to know that at least one other person in the universe gives a shit about the nearly $80million dollars extra for ULA’s services….or perhaps that should read: ULA’s shareholders.

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