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View Full Version : How come NASA's missions are so expensive ?



Launch window
2006-Feb-20, 02:12 PM
I was just reading a few other threads and it seems a few other space agency and space nations get a lot more done with the smaller bulk of dollars put into their projects.

I understand Europe's missions don't really compare to NASA's great projects, Skylab space station, the Viking to mars, landing men on the Moon. However recently Europe has been doing some very good projects, they have a heap of robotic missions like the Smart-1 Lunar mission, building very large ground telescopes, Rosetta to land on a comet... ESA's total budget much smaller than NASA's but they seem to get a lot more done for their investment of dollar / euros.

Russia and China have not had many new robotic spacecraft or unmanned science studies like NASA, but for the smaller Russian budget they seem to have a very good spacecraft called Soyuz which is both safe and cheap while the NASA Space Shuttle hasn't reduced launch costs. In the past few years we have seen new manned mission to space, Chinese have built the Shenzhou ( a craft very similar to Soyuz ) and Russia are building a new Klipper shuttle. So what has caused NASA's budget to get so high, and for the costs of projects to go way beyond expectations ?

antoniseb
2006-Feb-20, 02:22 PM
I have the impression that comparable ESA missions cost about as much as NASA missions. Compare WMAP & Planck for example, Rosetta & Dawn, GAIA & JWST. I don't see them as getting more for less.

NEOWatcher
2006-Feb-20, 02:37 PM
I have the impression that comparable ESA missions cost about as much as NASA missions. Compare WMAP & Planck for example, Rosetta & Dawn, GAIA & JWST. I don't see them as getting more for less.
I agree, it's not that NASA can't keep costs down, it's that they attack huge issues (as Kennedy said "Not because they are easy, but because they are hard").
Does any other space agency have anything close to what the shuttle can do? No... (Although the need is debatable)
Is any other space agency designing a ship for non-orbital use? Maybe, but they don't seem to be far along to see how the cost compares.

Launch window
2006-Feb-20, 02:57 PM
I agree, it's not that NASA can't keep costs down, it's that they attack huge issues (as Kennedy said "Not because they are easy, but because they are hard").
Does any other space agency have anything close to what the shuttle can do? No... (Although the need is debatable)
Is any other space agency designing a ship for non-orbital use? Maybe, but they don't seem to be far along to see how the cost compares.

Ok so if you compare a robotic NASA mission to place like Europe's robotic the costs aren't much different

However I've a feeling that old bureaucracy have lead to NASA's cost increases, left over bureaucracy from the Cold war and post Apollo. The budget for the ISS and trying to maintain an STS- SpaceShuttle add more weight to NASA's budget difficulty

Nicolas
2006-Feb-20, 03:08 PM
Russia had something VERRRRRRY comparable to the STS :). It never flew again due to its high costs...

farmerjumperdon
2006-Feb-20, 03:30 PM
I wouldn't know how to compare NASA with other agencies doing the same or similar work, but my experience tells me 2 things about spending:

1 - The larger the bureacracy, the more likely it is to spend too much for what they get.

2 - The closer an entity is regulated by a government agency, the more likely it is to spend too much for what they get. (The epitome of spending too much is usually reached when the purchasing party IS a goverment agency).

Basically, organizations are horrible shoppers. I think it is because it's not the shoppers money. My first experience with this was in my freshman year in high school. I volunteered to take over maintaining the fish tanks in the biology lab. I drew up a list of materials we needed and presented it to the teacher. She pulled out the catalog from their agreed to supplier of all things biological and tallied up the cost. It was about 4 to 5 times more than going to the local pet emporium. Nice contract if you can get it. heh?

I was spending the money as if it were my own. In my eyes, the school district was sloppy in spending because it was somebody elses money. I convinced her to buck the rules (so we could afford more of the needed supplies) and we went to the tropical fish store. She was my hero, but they extracted a pound of flesh from her by making her jump thru all the hoops of submitting purchase orders, invoices, approvals, etc. They made it as difficult as possible to act outside the box.

NEOWatcher
2006-Feb-20, 03:30 PM
Ok so if you compare a robotic NASA mission to place like Europe's robotic the costs aren't much different

However I've a feeling that old bureaucracy have lead to NASA's cost increases, left over bureaucracy from the Cold war and post Apollo. The budget for the ISS and trying to maintain an STS- SpaceShuttle add more weight to NASA's budget difficulty

You do state the robotic missions are comparable, and I agree we have plenty of left over "bloat" from ISS/STS. But; what left over bureuacracy are you talking about? I need to understand where you think the inefficiencies are before I agree or disagree.

captain swoop
2006-Feb-20, 04:24 PM
She was my hero, but they extracted a pound of flesh from her by making her jump thru all the hoops of submitting purchase orders, invoices, approvals, etc. They made it as difficult as possible to act outside the box.


No, they made it as difficult as possible to get the money into her own pocket.
If there were no systems for Pos, Invoices and approvals what's to stop someone cutting a deal with a supplier to pocket a percentage?

I am working on a contract with an NHS Primary Care trust, we support all the local Doctors Surgeries as well as Clinics and Community Hospitals, Even with a rigerous supply chain there is a lot of scope for kit to go 'missing'.

farmerjumperdon
2006-Feb-20, 04:36 PM
No, they made it as difficult as possible to get the money into her own pocket.
If there were no systems for Pos, Invoices and approvals what's to stop someone cutting a deal with a supplier to pocket a percentage?

I am working on a contract with an NHS Primary Care trust, we support all the local Doctors Surgeries as well as Clinics and Community Hospitals, Even with a rigerous supply chain there is a lot of scope for kit to go 'missing'.

Very true, any purchasing system needs an auditable trail. I'm just saying they made it very easy for the individual purchasers to use the contracted (and outrageously expensive) vendor, and very difficult to use anyone else.

So why not go for an auditable trail of wise spending, versus an auditable trail of reckless (but very standardized) spending?

Launch window
2006-Feb-20, 05:15 PM
But; what left over bureuacracy are you talking about?

My point is about old-cold war regulations treaty and paperwork that are holding the US space industry back, Russia dumped a lot of this after the USSR fell apart, Russia has slowly been making a comeback with their good Soyuz craft and by becoming more open like launching space tourist Tito. Olsen has been another example of this working with the Russians and Europeans, and now Russia might be helping Brazil's manned flight and may start building a space port for South Koreans. Sometimes problems are occuring today for USA's space plans and space science because of partisan appointees who do silly political things at NASA

NEOWatcher
2006-Feb-20, 05:32 PM
My point is about old-cold war regulations treaty and paperwork that are holding the US space industry back, Russia dumped a lot of this after the USSR fell apart, Russia has slowly been making a comeback with their good Soyuz craft and by becoming more open like launching space tourist Tito. Olsen has been another example of this working with the Russians and Europeans, and now Russia might be helping Brazil's manned flight and may start building a space port for South Koreans. Sometimes problems are occuring today for USA's space plans and space science because of partisan appointees who do silly political things at NASA
I still don't follow you. What cold-war regulations treaty and paperwork?
And the cooperation? NASA does too. Take ISS... lots of countries involved.
Partisan appointees doing silly political things? Example?

Yes; the funding is totally different, but that's up to the governments, not the NASA bureaucracy. Russia needs to raise money for space to survive. In the U.S., NASA is intended to be a research arm of the government, and anything that's commercially feasable is left up to the private sector.

I'm not trying to show that you are wrong, I just see apples vs oranges at this point.

Launch window
2006-Feb-20, 07:28 PM
I still don't follow you. What cold-war regulations treaty and paperwork?
And the cooperation? NASA does too. Take ISS... lots of countries involved.
Partisan appointees doing silly political things? Example?



Take for example the hangover on Teheran from the years of Carter and Reagan, having acts that forbid launches from Russia's rockets is not going to solve this. I don't see why possible use of Proton and Soyuz must be punished when the quarell was with Iranian ayatollah's and USSR policy

and on the ISS
http://www.thespacereview.com/article/413/1
is it really co-operation or could a modern international project work much better than this
' real lessons of international cooperation in space '

NEOWatcher
2006-Feb-20, 08:01 PM
Take for example the hangover on Teheran from the years of Carter and Reagan, having acts that forbid launches from Russia's rockets is not going to solve this. I don't see why possible use of Proton and Soyuz must be punished when the quarell was with Iranian ayatollah's and USSR policy
I guess I don't understand... Is there somewhere you can point me that explains this clearly? Even if we are forbidden to use Russian rockets, what kinds of things is making NASA suffer? We do have rockets other than shuttle. It's just that no time has been spent making them man-rated.


and on the ISS
http://www.thespacereview.com/article/413/1
is it really co-operation or could a modern international project work much better than this
' real lessons of international cooperation in space '
That article leaves me with the impression that the international cooperation hurdles will not be overcome, and they don't even address each countries political aims.

Besides, ISS cooperation was based on what shuttle can do, and relied on the U.S. to deliver timely on construction. So where does that leave international cooperation?

In the end, I think we are talking about different goals, different aproaches, different funding models, and different cultures. This leaves direct comparisons difficult to discuss or dispute.

Wolverine
2006-Feb-24, 09:57 AM
Moved from BABBling to Space Exploration (a more suitable home).

Ara Pacis
2006-Feb-24, 07:46 PM
Partisan appointees doing silly political things? Example?


here (http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2006/02/04/outrage-at-attacks-on-nasa-science/)

novaderrik
2006-Feb-24, 10:57 PM
why are NASA missions so expensive?
just watch NASA tv sometime when they show a "behind the scenes" look at a mission.
they always have one guy with a screwdriver.. he turns a screw 1/4 turn, and stops. another guy standing next to him writes down on a clipboard that the first guy turned that screw 1/4 turn. then another guy with a clipboard writes down that the other guy wrote down that the first guy turned the screw..
then they go talk to the documentary film crew about how hard they are working and how they only have 3 months to get those last 4 screws tightened up..
and on and on..
they say they are "playing it safe" by documenting everything, but i think they are just trying to milk out their jobs a bit longer.

i know, i know- spacecraft are touchy, expensive things. but really- they could have screwed together a whole fleet of MER's to throw at Mars for the same $$$ if they didn't do so much documentation, and even if half of them crashed or went up in a ball of fire on the launch pad, they'd still get much more science back.

Beowolf
2006-Feb-24, 11:17 PM
Why are NASA missions so expensive?

I think the funding formula is responsible. IIRC contractors are paid on a "cost plus" basis. They are paid for the cost of a program plus a percentage of that cost as a "profit". The more it costs to launch a mission the more profit there is.

Nicolas
2006-Feb-27, 10:28 AM
why are NASA missions so expensive?
just watch NASA tv sometime when they show a "behind the scenes" look at a mission.
they always have one guy with a screwdriver.. he turns a screw 1/4 turn, and stops. another guy standing next to him writes down on a clipboard that the first guy turned that screw 1/4 turn. then another guy with a clipboard writes down that the other guy wrote down that the first guy turned the screw..
then they go talk to the documentary film crew about how hard they are working and how they only have 3 months to get those last 4 screws tightened up..
and on and on..
they say they are "playing it safe" by documenting everything, but i think they are just trying to milk out their jobs a bit longer.

i know, i know- spacecraft are touchy, expensive things. but really- they could have screwed together a whole fleet of MER's to throw at Mars for the same $$$ if they didn't do so much documentation, and even if half of them crashed or went up in a ball of fire on the launch pad, they'd still get much more science back.

Please show me some calculations that
a) not checking each other's work on a whole rocket + mission would mean "only" 50% failures
b) the paychecks of the "checking crew" add up to more than the cost of 50% failures.

And what about investigating what went wrong with a mission? What about making sure you get a tight launch window? A kaboom on the pad delays things, and you'll end up missing the window and hence the mission.

Jens
2006-Feb-27, 11:09 AM
Russia and China have not had many new robotic spacecraft or unmanned science studies like NASA, but for the smaller Russian budget they seem to have a very good spacecraft called Soyuz which is both safe and cheap while the NASA Space Shuttle hasn't reduced launch costs.

I can't really say much about the ESA, but with regard to Russia and China, does the calculation take into account labor costs and the cost of living? How much does a Chinese aerospace engineer make compared to one in the US? If other industries are anything to go by, a project that takes the same amount of labor is going to be quite a bit cheaper in China. Of course, I'm certain that a lot of the components used in spacecraft are outsourced anyway, so it's not that simple, but there is going to be a differential, unavoidably, because of differences in wages and cost of living.

NEOWatcher
2006-Feb-27, 02:59 PM
Partisan appointees doing silly political things? Example?
here (http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2006/02/04/outrage-at-attacks-on-nasa-science/)
Not quite the example I'm looking for. In the original context...

<snip> Sometimes problems are occuring today for USA's space plans and space science because of partisan appointees who do silly political things at NASA
The example is a disagreement. It's a problem for those who disagree (not that I agree). And NASA is stuck having to make some VERY difficult decisions. It's the sillyness of the people with the purse strings (and ultimately public opinion) that's happening, not NASA. (Although, I'm sure there's some waste that is attributed to NASA)

Doodler
2006-Feb-27, 03:19 PM
I think a lot of it is infrastructure amortization. When NASA orders a satellite/probe, they're paying Lockheed or whomever a fee not only covering the cost of the mission hardware, its also paying for the facilities its built in too. The more hardware you order, the less of the facilities you have to pay for in each piece of hardware, and the cost comes down. You'll always have a baseline cost to build mission hardware (materials+labor+profit), but over the course of ten years or so, you're average company wants the banknote on their manufacturing facility paid for too, and that's a component of the final ticket price.

I think that's the reason the shuttle orbiters were stupendously expensive. Being reusable, there were never going to be as many built, so the cost of financing the facilities had to be divided into pretty large chunks and rolled over into the delivery cost of the handful of projected orbiters.

novaderrik
2006-Feb-27, 08:33 PM
Please show me some calculations that
a) not checking each other's work on a whole rocket + mission would mean "only" 50% failures
b) the paychecks of the "checking crew" add up to more than the cost of 50% failures.

And what about investigating what went wrong with a mission? What about making sure you get a tight launch window? A kaboom on the pad delays things, and you'll end up missing the window and hence the mission.

well, ok. fine. double, triple, and quadruple everything on the first couple.
but then, after you know it is a reliable, cheap system- why not make a whole bunch of MER's, each identical to the last? how much more would it cost to make 10, 20, or 100 more of them, now that all the r&d work is done? just think of the science return that would come back from that. and how about the good paying jobs that would be created building them and the launch vehicles to launch them?
and why only throw the things at Mars? is there any reason why they wouldn't work on the moon? or even parts of Mercury or some of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn? stick some different instruments on that neat arm, and throw them all over the solar system.
that's my biggest gripe with the way the space industry is run. they make something that works beautifully, then they don't think that maybe thye could use that knowledge to make more of them. yeah, i know NASA is the r&d arm of the government, and as such, are there to develop new things- but why not sell the rights to manufacture things like more MER's to private industry and create some economic benefits for the common man from all this, which would, i think, make more people care about our space program.

just a thought..

NEOWatcher
2006-Feb-27, 09:13 PM
It's not that I don't agree here, but I would just like to add a few comments to think about.

well, ok. fine. double, triple, and quadruple everything on the first couple.
but then, after you know it is a reliable, cheap system- why not make a whole bunch of MER's, each identical to the last? how much more would it cost to make 10, 20, or 100 more of them, now that all the r&d work is done? just think of the science return that would come back from that.

It would make sense, but each generation determines what would be needed on the next generation. It will depend on the flexibility vs volume tradeoff.


and how about the good paying jobs that would be created building them and the launch vehicles to launch them?

More jobs, more money being spent. It's got to come from somewhere.


and why only throw the things at Mars? is there any reason why they wouldn't work on the moon? or even parts of Mercury or some of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn? stick some different instruments on that neat arm, and throw them all over the solar system.

Each destination has different obstacles to overcome. For instance, Parachutes work on Mars but not on the Moon.


but why not sell the rights to manufacture things like more MER's to private industry and create some economic benefits for the common man from all this, which would, i think, make more people care about our space program.

I think the rights to just about everything are up for grabs in some way. I would think that private industry would be cranking these out if there was some economic benefits (for thier own pocket).

just a thought..
With a few of mine thrown in. :)

Nicolas
2006-Feb-27, 10:16 PM
a launcher remains expensive. Even the nowadays very cheap Soyuz R7 launcher is 40 million. The cargo version tends to explode more often. Wy? Because they don't look as close as for the manned launchers. Still they would like it not to explode, as you loose a launcher, payload, and launch opportunity. And trust (and thrust, obvisouly :)). And those all are bad things. Even only counting material costs, space tech is too expensive to count on a more than miniscule percentage simply blowing up. Also mass production is often not possible as the systems are dedicated. About the only mass produced large things are one shot launchers and GPS sats...