A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg AFB California at 10:02 AM PST today, carrying the NASA / U.S. Geological Survey Landsat Data Continuity Mission. Launching into a near polar orbit, the LDCM, which will be officially named Landsat 8 pending a successful check out in orbit, will continue the long running earth observation program which saw its first launch occur in 1972.
The Landsat series of satellites have provided a continuous string of medium level imaging since that time, which is available at no cost to the user through the U.S. Geological Survey. For example, the LandsatLook Viewer allows the user to select a given location and pull up a series of long series of images, all taken at different times of the year depending on the satellite pass, for an astonishing run of nearly 40 years. Altogether, it is a critical tool for any person, business or institution involved with resource management, and one of the space program’s most valuable, and most under-appreciated contributions to the U.S. economy and national interest.
Today’s launch was conducted aboard the “plain jane” version of the Atlas V, the 401, which has no strap on boosters, a single upperstage engine and a 4 meter fairing. It was originally awarded to Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services in 2007 for a $124 million fixed fee contract. By contrast the first NASA science launch awarded to the SpaceX Falcon 9, that of the Jason -3 satellite for 2014, was for $82 million.
With current pricing for similarly equipped Atlas V 401 vehicles for NASA launches at roughly $150 million, based on awards from 2011, the difference is hardly trivial. For example, the annual funding for continuing operations of the wildly successful Cassini mission to Saturn, which is still producing prolific amounts of data, is approximately $60 million per year, almost exactly the price difference between the two vehicles. Ongoing funding for Cassini, as well as other significant programs are currently under threat from both a cutback in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate which was initiated in the Obama Administration’s FY 2013 budget, as well as the looming prospect of sequestration.
Of course, saving money on the launch vehicle doesn’t get you very far if the mission fails, as happened with NASA’s Glory mission in March of 2011, but in the budgetary environment for the forseeable future, a great deal of science may be riding on whether or not NASA can procure launch services with Atlas V reliability, but at Falcon 9 prices.