The Space AdvocateOct 13, 2021

The Space Advocate Newsletter, October 2021

From the Chief Advocate

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Lucy is expected to launch on Saturday, Oct. 16, beginning a 12-year mission to explore the Trojan asteroids. While other NASA projects dominate headlines with their pricey delays, Lucy epitomizes the “no drama, no media” method of successful development. While no mission is free from challenges, the Lucy team delivered its spacecraft on time and on budget; even with the havoc caused by COVID-19, it remains within 1% of its planned $980 million life-cycle cost.

NASA’s Discovery Program, of which Lucy is the 13th mission, was established in 1992 to provide frequent, low-cost mission opportunities in planetary exploration that limited NASA’s financial exposure. Unlike strategic “flagship” missions managed by a NASA center that can take decades and billions of dollars to complete, Discovery missions are competitively selected, led by a single person, must launch within five years, and adhere to a cost cap of $450 million.

But wait, how do we square Lucy’s $980 million budget (previously the domain of mid-sized New Frontiers missions) with the Discovery “cap” of $450 million? The answer lies in NASA’s accounting policies, and how changes made in response to the scientific community’s feedback in 2014 enabled more ambitious missions like Lucy (and the forthcoming Psyche mission) to exist.

The key to understanding how Lucy can cost $980 million and still adhere to a $450 million cost cap is knowing what, exactly, is capped. In this case, the cap only applies to the development process — Lucy’s launch vehicle and mission operations costs are excluded. The life-cycle cost (LCC) of a mission, however, is inclusive of everything. Thanks to our Planetary Exploration Budget Dataset, we know the details of Lucy’s mission costs. Take the current LCC of $989 million, subtract out the cost of its Atlas 401 rocket ($150 million) and 12 years of operations ($280 million), and we are left with $560 million spent on development.

We’re still $110 million over. But a further detail provides insight: the $450 million cap is in FY 2015 dollars; we need to account for inflation. A quick-and-dirty inflation adjustment results in a mission development cost of $501 million in FY 2015 dollars. That’s still higher than $450 million, but given COVID, I think it’s fair to call that “close enough.”

The reality is a bit more complicated, but the point remains that, absent the policy changes to exclude operational expenses from the Discovery cost cap, Lucy likely would not have been selected. Discovery would have remained a de facto inner solar system program, limited to missions with brief traverse times. The changes in 2014 demonstrate how important policy tweaks can be, and how NASA can quietly double the resources applied to “cost capped” mission lines with a few strokes of the proverbial pen.

Go Lucy!

Casey Dreier
Chief Advocate
The Planetary Society

Space Policy Highlights


Why and how to leverage the commercial space sector for the benefit of planetary science and its community (PDF) "In this paper, we explicate the relationship between mission cost and risk, examine the state of low-cost missions in the Planetary Science Division, list the benefits of further commercial involvement to planetary exploration and the planetary science community, and provide a set of incentives that would evolve beyond the CLPS program by attracting further engagement by commercial space companies during the next decade."

I would be remiss not to mention this paper, submitted to the Planetary Science decadal survey, on which I was a co-author. Not everyone is excited about the implications of beefier Discovery missions and the subsequent loss of appetite for risk-taking. This paper explores how alternative programs in smallsats and commercial spaceflight can provide an avenue for smaller, lower-cost planetary missions.

Solar System

NASA splits its human spaceflight directorate into two ( "NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced today that he is dividing responsibility for the human spaceflight program into two. One Mission Directorate will focus on space operations and the other on developing systems for exploring the Moon and Mars. It is a return to the NASA organization prior to 2011, but the decision caught the space community by surprise, prompting speculation about motives that might be in play."


Report offers way to ease Mars mission planetary protection requirements ( "Future Mars lander missions could adopt less stringent planetary protection requirements by landing in regions of the planet unlikely to allow any terrestrial contamination to propagate, a study concludes. The study by a National Academies committee recommended that missions that don’t plan to go more than a meter into the surface could land across a wide range of lower latitudes of the planet unlikely to have large amounts of water ice."


United Kingdom releases its national space strategy ( "We will build one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world, and the UK will grow as a space nation. We will protect and defend the UK’s interests in space, shape the space environment and use space to help solve challenges at home and overseas. Through cutting edge research, we will inspire the next generation and sustain the UK’s competitive edge in space science and technology."

Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition

Planetary Radio Space Policy Edition logo

NASA's Congressional Logjam

A polarized U.S. Congress is juggling nearly half a dozen pieces of major legislation, several of which face time-sensitive deadlines that, if missed, could create significant disruption for major NASA programs. Brendan Curry, The Planetary Society's Chief of D.C. Operations, reports on the view from inside the beltway, and helps us understand how the current logjam of legislation could impact or delay NASA policymaking. Casey and Mat address NASA's major reorganization of its human spaceflight program and how scuba is a cheaper alternative to space tourism.