Curious About Curiosity

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If you've been following NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars, you can't help but cheer the success of it. Given the high percentage of failure of Mars missions, I was sure that Rube Goldberg skycrane thing would get tangled up and make a $2.5 billion crater for the orbiter to photograph. This vehicle weighs a ton and it's the size of a Camry. You can't heave something like that at another planet and expect it to work.

But it did. And the photos coming back are just stunning. The fact that this happened amidst a great showing for the U.S. at the Olympics makes for a nice bright spot in an otherwise dreary, election-year summer. Cheers for NASA.

Still, I wonder if such a mission as this can (and will) be done more inexpensively by a private consortium of some sort. In this blog, I wrote about Elon Musk's SpaceEx and how it appears that this company is truly delivering on launch costs much cheaper than NASA or the military can offer. If you use the same formula SpaceEx seems to have developed, then the Curiosity mission would have cost not $2.5 billion, but about $750 million or less. It probably would have been less gold plated, but perhaps just as successful, even acknowledging that a simple launch into earth orbit isn't near the technical feat of plopping something on Mars without breaking it into little pieces. That $2.5 billion, by the way, is about 14 percent of NASA's budget. A lot of eggs in one basket.

So why didn't the private sector step up? For one, it wasn't asked to. This is a JPL science project. Second, the capability isn't quite there, but it soon might be. Exploration missions like Curiosity lack the profit motive that private investors want in return for risking their money. The best you could hope for is a fixed-cost contract with good cost control and bonuses.

But that's not to say the private sector isn't proposing things other than thrill rides into near-earth space. How about mining asteroids for high-value metals? That's exactly what this consortium of tech billionaires wants to do. On the face of it, it's just daft, but they probably said that about PayPal and e-bay, too. Basically, they want to send swarms of robots to distant asteroids, plant them on the surface and mine precious metals like platinum, palladium and iridium. The trick part isn't the physics—although that's challenge enough—it's economics. It's not practical to haul ore back from an asteroid 10 million miles away, so one plan calls for refining the metal in situ, then flying it back to earth.

If they pull this off, it will make Curiosity look like a 1966 Volkswagen. On the other hand, when there's real profit motive at hand, almost anything is possible.

Comments (20)

I think it's certainly possible to do so at a lesser cost, but there are always two requirements for it to work: 1) The organization absolutely has to have the right people work for the right price and 2) use the collective knowledge gained by the NASA labs. That's something people often discount, that SpaceX's efforts stand on the successes of NASA. And then there's always the reality that contractors have always been involved in these efforts.

Posted by: Michael Mullins | August 16, 2012 6:05 AM    Report this comment

Government exists to extract money and spend it. There are 10 companies that could do it for way less and make money doing it.

Michael, everything ever done is built on yesterdays discoveries. That doesn't mean they were a good value.

Posted by: Roy Zesch | August 16, 2012 8:02 AM    Report this comment

I think Michael was making the point that if the private company has to develop everything NASA had to in order to make the flight work they might not be able to do it any cheaper.

Government does some good things. Government dopes some bad things. Government is wasteful at times. At times Government does things cost-effectively. Government isn't perfect because it is a product of "humans", who have many virtues and many failings. But just because it is a "Government" project doesn't automatically make it bad or more costly than private industry could do it. (Can you tell I am unappreciative of blanket statements. Especially when they are backed with no facts or figures)

As for value, I can't say. But the things we are learning and seeing are pretty amazing. The value thing might or might not show up in the future.

Posted by: steve egolf | August 16, 2012 8:25 AM    Report this comment

Cost is largely driven by physics, e.g., you have to get your machine out of the Earth's gravity well, get it to the target with sufficient precision (remember Mars Climate Observer was only off by 50 km out of a 220 million km journey and it burned up in the atmosphere), the one-way light time means you can't have someone on Earth control the ship in real time (i.e, it must be completely autonomous as there are no gas stations to pull into out there) and then you have to get into the gravity well of your destination, e.g. Curiosity having to decelerate from 5.8 km/sec to zero in just 7 minutes.

Asteroids are a piece of cake compared with Mars--the arrival gravity well is miniscule.

Also, don't forget someone did try a "cheap" approach to a Mars landing and failed miserably (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beagle_2 ) because they didn't spend enough time/euros on their engineering. So there is such a thing as being "too cheap"

Remember the old saying: "Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten"

Posted by: David Rosing | August 16, 2012 9:05 AM    Report this comment

Dang, the link to Beagle 2 didn't show up.

Anyway, Google "Beagle 2 Mars Lander" and see how well the "cheap" approach worked.

Posted by: David Rosing | August 16, 2012 9:06 AM    Report this comment

It may be possible for a private company to do the job for less money, but just as with other private space efforts, it would go better with a lot of input from NASA, in this case JPL. Don't forget, they have decades of history doing this, and have learned the techniques of interplanetary travel the hard way. Nobody is as good as they are in this department.

Look at landing: the sky crane concept is great, but this isn't the first time they've done it - JPL used a similar technique with Opportunity and Spirit. (Go to YouTube and look for "Six Minutes of Terror.") That kind of incremental learning is what NASA is famous for.

So cheaper? Perhaps. But not by the time you factor in all the support needed from those who have actually done the job previously, and probably not when you factor in the number of failed missions leading to the one that's finally successful.

Posted by: Fred Patton | August 16, 2012 10:01 AM    Report this comment

So the Martians didn't like the dog but have no problem with the cat. Is this the project to test the Ice Caps to find out if there is any life at all?

Posted by: Bruce Savage | August 16, 2012 12:43 PM    Report this comment

Bruce, Not sure of the cats/dogs comment but no, Curiosity landed at Gale crater near the equator.

The reason Gale was picked: (From 'Engineering & Science Magazine') " the crater is the kind of place geologists would head to on Earth to search for evidence of past life. They hope to find organic compounds, the carbon-containing chemicals considered necessary for life. So finding the crater on Mars, at a safe elevation with moderate environmental conditions, made it a natural choice for the mission."

Posted by: David Rosing | August 16, 2012 4:21 PM    Report this comment

Thank you David for the info. Curiosity as in cats being curios and Beagle as in the type of dog

Posted by: Bruce Savage | August 16, 2012 4:32 PM    Report this comment

Paul, and I'm surprised I have to even say this, no private company would have conducted the mission. Why? Where was the profit? Abstract knowledge? Since when does a company do basic research? Heavens man, even the drug companies build their products off of government funded basic research.

Now, I'm all for the Larry Niven (among other writers, scientists, et al.) view (put forth in the 1980's) of opening up space to private enterprise. Still, even they were viewing it as huckster space for rent on a station, government moon base, ad so on. Why? No private company would take the risk!

One final thing, mining asteroids is neither new nor novel. We've had the technology to do it since the 1970's. The real trick is getting the material (refined) back. If anything Paul, the Cold War (and it's subsequent treaties, e.g. Deep Space, Moon, et al.) held us back.

Posted by: Joseph Servov | August 16, 2012 5:45 PM    Report this comment

1.The skycrane WAS NOT involved in prior rovers. A 'chute and heat shield. But that Rube Goldberg SkyCrane was not. This device had to leave the backshield, rocket to 60' of the ground, HOVER, winch down Curiosity THEN cut the cords and fly away to crash. A new deal in the complexity department. No air bag as with prior rovers. 2.It was 6 minutes of terror then, but 7 this time. Lesser rovers approached at about 12k mph; Curiosity was 13,000, so more slow-down time required. With landing totally untouchable from Earth, it was really 14 minutes of terror: outcome of the landing not known till the first 7 minutes + message time of 7 more. 3.40% of Mars landings failed. This was more than just loss of $2.5 billion. 4.We weren’t dumping a couple billion in cash on Mars. It was--and continues to be--spent here. R&D and testing over the past 8 years. Plus over 700 folks still on the rest of the mission--400 scientists and 300 engineers. 5. Pumped on Curiosity, I'm equally pumped on SpaceX hauling astronauts to ISS. Generic NASA experience re-tuned for cost-effective renditions of rocket (old style)tech. Same with Bob Bigelow’s "inflatable" habitats (2 still in orbit on his dime). Uses NASA patents for future opportunities for cost-cutting/freedom to position humans in space. 6.These accomplishments are less difficult than landing anything/anyone on Mars. Buzz Aldrem urges touching first on Phobos, with reduced risk. And maybe some discoveries if EuroProbes can be believed.)

Posted by: Wash Phillips | August 16, 2012 6:15 PM    Report this comment

Paul, there were 5 points in my windy comment above. Sorry they got a bit mashed up in trying to count 1500 characheere--including spaces!

Posted by: Wash Phillips | August 16, 2012 6:18 PM    Report this comment

"Paul, and I'm surprised I have to even say this, no private company would have conducted the mission"

And I'm just as surprised you didn't read that point in the original posting.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 16, 2012 6:31 PM    Report this comment

"Paul, and I'm surprised I have to even say this, no private company would have conducted the mission"

And I'm just as surprised you didn't read that point in the original posting.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 16, 2012 6:32 PM    Report this comment

We are out-sourcing some of the boost tasks to private industry, essentially purchasing a spec’d-out commodity they can produce and sell at a profit. This comes with the inherent incentive to do things better & cheaper so as to maximize said profit and so makes business/financial sense.

I suppose you could also spec the deep-space transport buss, maybe by standardizing on two or three different flavors that would accommodate various payload requirements, and turn that over to industry also. Or maybe not.

On the other hand, outsourcing the science & probe hardware part would not seem to make sense under any conditions, as both the objectives and methods are a constant R&D process carried out in collaboration by a large body of highly specialized people. How would you write a spec for this? If you did and were not satisfied with the result (think crash & burn), how would you recover from the non-performing company?

Posted by: John Wilson | August 17, 2012 2:01 PM    Report this comment

What's so PITIFUL about this entire discussion is that we thought nothing about the NASA mission description of dropping a TOYOTA on Mars. Why was it the comparison wasn't that of a CHEVROLET MALIBU? Sad commentary....IMO

Posted by: George Horn | August 20, 2012 2:36 PM    Report this comment

Did the writer, do any research on the number of very talented people used in this project? What would be the cost of this talent and would they be willing to give up the academic climate they are now living. Remember, when working with very talented people they require some unusual spaces and they do not work in the normal 40 hour work week!!!

Posted by: tony butterhof | August 20, 2012 6:51 PM    Report this comment

It is visibly obvious there is enough talent and money in the land of fruits and nuts to do anything imaginable. Including private space research. Don't be so quick to deny it. We've just been amazed (again) at demonstrably insane adventures...

Posted by: Pete Kuhns | August 20, 2012 8:57 PM    Report this comment

The Malbiu is heavier. By about 300 pounds.

Actually, the better comparison would have been a Metro or a Smart Car, both of which weight under 2000 pounds. The Curiosity is about 1950 pounds.

Look at it this way: The prose was made in the USA.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 21, 2012 8:34 AM    Report this comment

"What would be the cost of this talent and would they be willing to give up the academic climate they are now living. "

Directing the question at the 1800 employees of SpaceX, I'd guess the answer is yes.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 21, 2012 8:35 AM    Report this comment

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