This is Falcon Heavy. It costs $90m. For a mere $1b a year, or about 4% of NASA’s budget, we could launch it to every planet in every launch window. And that’s before the bulk discount.
This is a diagram of every launch window to every planet for the next 20 years.
The colorful blobs represent when Earth and the target planet are correctly aligned for a low cost flight. The colors represent the total mass the Falcon Heavy can deliver.
The names in the lower left represent historical missions, exploiting but a tiny fraction of available exploration opportunities. No robot has launched to Venus since 1989, or Neptune since 1977 – more than 40 years ago. Shame!
Most planets have a launch window about once per year. Mars has one every 2.2 years. The diagram also includes launch windows for Mars sample return.
A regular cadence of relatively massive cargo flights to all the planets completely changes the robotic exploration paradigm.
25T to Mars is enough for every major space agency to fly a rover, a lander, and an orbiter, every launch.
This campaign-style exploration program de-risks isolated failure or schedule slip. Design, assembly and operations experts work on a line of steadily iterated robots with an ever-changing assemblage of absurdly advanced instruments.
Historical perspective and details
As robotic exploration missions become more complex, flat budgets force launch cadence to decrease. Principal Investigators of various instruments, cognizant of the finite human lifespan, drive risk aversion into mission development. Failure is no longer an option. Every single space probe is built with entirely custom design and tooling, by a mostly new team who has to relearn the process from scratch. This perpetuates a never ending spiral of cost, risk aversion, slow iteration, slow learning, and low levels of innovation.
The core problem is that the humans whose decisions drive these programs face an unbearably steep opportunity cost for failure.
How can this negative cycle be broken? By shifting the opportunity cost by exploiting a new generation of much cheaper rocket launches.
With essentially unlimited lift capacity “leaving the station” on a regular cadence, programs could be designed to exploit an assembly line style of production. Designs would be regularly and incrementally improved by single teams that saw their machines in action and could afford to make plans for future model years. Overall operational costs would be steady, while productivity could increase by an order of magnitude.
Predictable demand would see private industry compete to produce the most reliable, cost-effective subsystems and standardized spacecraft buses.
The consequence of schedule slip or unit failure is greatly reduced, since with a diversified market of space hardware producers, there will always be something ready to fill up the extra capacity. Why not send three more relay satellites to Mars? Or a swarm of cubesats to Jupiter?
Instead of an engineering failure potentially risking the future of the entire program, not to mention hundreds of careers, a failure is a sign of a healthy degree of innovation and learning. Indeed, the degree to which routine failures are accepted is a sign of system health!
One of the reasons Silicon Valley is such a powerful engine of innovation and prosperity is because it limits the consequences of failure and gives entrepreneurs the chance to try again, after learning some hard lessons. Yet no-one feels threatened by the routine failures of unsuccessful start ups, and no-one should feel threatened by the failure of a rover on Mars. While Opportunity’s ongoing silence is a horrible thing to endure, the sting would be lessened somewhat if there were currently 20 other operational Mars rovers, and another 20 on the way before 2030.
Top down cultural change is hard to achieve. It doesn’t matter if the NASA administrator exhorts the various centers to do something differently – the behavior of the collective is determined from beginning to end by its incentive structure. And the current structure of planetary exploration missions incentivizes extreme aversion to risk.
A unilateral “gift” of essentially unlimited capacity on the Falcon Heavy, or New Glenn, would do what no quantity of hand-wringing and focus groups could achieve: In a single stroke change the incentive structures around deep space exploration and break the cycle of spiraling costs and institutional aversion to risk.
What do you think?