Casey DreierFeb 20, 2019

NASA’s Lucy mission gets caught in a fight between rocket companies

Building a spacecraft is about managing various forms of risk: the risk of hardware failure, software errors, design flaws, you name it. But the project managers of Lucy, an upcoming NASA mission to distant trojan asteroids, face a new type of risk: the risk that they could miss a launch window due to legal battles between rocket companies.

On 31 January, NASA's Launch Services Program announced that it had awarded a contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch Lucy into space. The company's Atlas V-401 rocket, the same configuration that launched MAVEN to Mars, was selected for a cost of $148 million.

SpaceX, which had proposed its Falcon 9 rocket for the same purpose, filed a formal protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) 11 days later, triggering a formal review. In response, NASA issued a stop-work order to ULA while the contract is under review, which could take as long as 3 months.

SpaceX justified its protest by saying that the company "offered a solution with extraordinarily high confidence of mission success at a price dramatically lower than the award amount, so we believe the decision to pay vastly more [to ULA] for the same mission was therefore not in the best interest of the agency or the American taxpayers."

People familiar with the Lucy project emphasized that mission planning continues despite the launch vehicle uncertainty. However, the uncertainty about which rocket they will use makes it difficult to optimize the spacecraft design to maximize its performance and minimize its fuel use. According to a GAO report on major NASA projects from 2018, Lucy has passed its preliminary design review and its team is working to finalize its design specifications ahead of entering the most complicated (and expensive) phase of the mission: the period where the hardware is built, integrated, and tested. Knowing the launch vehicle is an important part of mission planning at this stage.

Lucy must be ready in time for a 20-day launch window that opens in October of 2021. If the GAO rules in favor of SpaceX, the most likely outcome is that the launch contract will be re-opened for bidding. The recompeting this process could take upwards of 6 months, which, combined with uncertain spacecraft integration requirements, could cause Lucy to miss its 2021 launch window.

There is a backup launch opportunity in 2022, though this is not ideal. It is less energetically favorable (it requires more fuel) and it is less monetarily favorable (it adds another year of development costs). These additional development costs could end up costing NASA more than any savings enabled by SpaceX.

Numbers are not forthcoming at this stage, but we can look to past examples of mission delays to get a rough sense of their cost. NASA's InSight mission infamously missed its 2016 launch window due to quality issues with a major scientific instrument. Like Lucy, InSight was a Discovery-class planetary mission. Its resulting 2-year delay added $154 million to the cost of the mission.

It's reasonable, then, to assume that an additional year delay of Lucy would cost NASA in the neighborhood of $75 - $100 million. This additional cost to the mission would likely negate any savings provided by SpaceX's Falcon 9 (costs tend to be higher than SpaceX's published costs for the Falcon 9 due to additional launch service requirements for government payloads). While we don't know SpaceX's bid for Lucy, the Falcon 9 launch of the DSCOVR spacecraft cost the government $97 million in 2015 and its launch of the astrophysics mission TESS cost $87 million in 2017.

In a statement to Space News, ULA emphasized its ability to stick to launch schedules, implying NASA's choice of the Atlas V over a Falcon 9 was driven by Lucy's narrow, 20-day launch window. SpaceX's argument is that their bid would save taxpayer dollars. But recompeting the contract could cause a launch delay, and ultimately cost NASA more in the long run. I reached out to SpaceX to get their thoughts on such a scenario, but they declined to respond.

Note: this article was updated to correct InSight's actual overrun cost of $154 million.

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