Congressional funding for space science has been steady at a few billion dollars per year, so there is a known, existing market. Until the early 1990s, each deep-space mission cost taxpayers about $2.5 billion. Since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) introduced the concept of "faster, better, cheaper," the cost of deep-space missions has dropped to $250 million and less. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) and the Lunar Prospector missions had full lifecycle costs of about $250 million and $100 million, respectively. Both had five science experiments, so the average taxpayer cost of the new knowledge per mission was about $50 million for each data set for NEAR and about $20 million each for Lunar Prospector.
Beginning in 1997, commercial space companies such as SpaceDev have offered to collect desired space science data at their own corporate risk and to sell it to NASA, which is the agency responsible for collecting scientific data in space. NASA's Lunar Prospector had instruments orbiting the Moon looking for evidence of water, and NEAR had five science experiments examining the properties of the visited asteroid. SpaceDev proposed to collect similar science data for sale to NASA at prices far below NASA's costs.
Even though commercial companies build most of the components and subsystems that make up a deep-space spacecraft, no commercial mission beyond Earth orbit has ever been performed. This is mainly because NASA allocates money to its own deep-space missions. NASA managers fear their budgets will be cut if missions fail, so managers are very conservative in their mission and spacecraft designs, and they try to control all mission decisions. This results in more expensive spacecraft and missions because the components are generally older, heavier, and more expensive and require more power. This equipment is specified because it has flown before, and therefore has "heritage," and managers believe they cannot be punished if they use this "proven" hardware.
Commercial companies have to make profits if they are to perform space missions. Companies wishing to fly commercial missions use modern business practices and smaller, less expensive hardware to reduce costs below NASA's. These practices cause government managers to fear increased risk from commercial missions. If companies insure their missions, however, the government should consider the taxpayer risk eliminated, and the cost savings could then be achieved. An additional problem in performing commercial deep-space missions is that some NASA employees are afraid the private sector will take over all such missions in the future, reducing the need for NASA employees.
If companies do not make a profit, they cannot raise money because investors expect to make a competitive return on their investment that is equal to or better than other investment opportunities at that time. If the two main sources of revenue are science and entertainment data, then a commercial space mission must focus on these areas. To get NASA to purchase space science data, a company must first know exactly what data are important to NASA, as determined by committees of scientists that advise NASA. Unfortunately, these committees do not publish a list of desired space science ranked by importance. This, however, is set to change with the establishment of science-driven exploration priorities starting in 2002.
NASA has no contracting mechanism set up through which it can purchase space science data, so commercial companies have to navigate a very time-consuming (i.e., years-long) process of submitting proposals when NASA is ready. NASA proposal reviewers do not approve data purchases unless they are completely convinced a mission will fly, even though there is no risk in such cases because the data do not have to be paid for until they are delivered. The Catch-22 problem with this reasoning is that it is impossible for a commercial company to raise tens of millions of dollars to fully fund a mission unless the investors are convinced the mission will sell its data at a profit. This has resulted in a stalemate, and no commercial deep-space missions have been flown, even though such endeavors could be a clear win-win situation for taxpayers, scientists, and the commercial companies.
see also NASA (volume 3); Planetary Exploration (volume 1); Planetary Exploration, Future of (volume 2).
James W. Benson
SpaceDev: The World's First Commercial Space Exploration and Development Company. <http://www.spacedev.com>.
A True Space Burial
A TRUE SPACE BURIAL
On July 31, 1999, the Lunar Prospector spacecraft finished its mission of mapping the Moon and was directed by NASA scientists to impact the Moon's surface. Aboard the spacecraft were the ashes of noted planetary geologist Eugene Shoemaker, the codiscoverer of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. The crash of the Lunar Prospector essentially buried Shoemaker's ashes on the Moon, where they remain today.