Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

 
 
CHAPTER 10
 
COSTS
 
 
 
[161] Building the launch vehicles and spacecraft described in previous sections was expensive, but necessary if the United States was to achieve the stated objectives in science, applications, and exploration. Moreover, costs did not end with development. Since most rockets and spacecraft of the 1960s were expended in the accomplishment of their missions, it was necessary to buy a new launch vehicle and a new spacecraft for each new mission.
 
Individual costs for launch vehicles are given in table 6. These are rough, order-of-magnitude figures. Actual costs varied, depending on how many special requirements were placed on the launch by the science objectives. To start, launch vehicle costs exceeded those of the payloads they carried, but in just a couple of years Hugh Dryden was informing the Congress that spacecraft costs had come to exceed those of the launch vehicles.47 As time went on, engineers and scientists became expert in miniaturizing equipment, cramming their satellites and space probes with instruments. This practice increased the amount of research that could be accomplished in a given payload weight and space, but it also made for....
 

 
Table 6
Launch Vehicle Costs

Vehicle

Cost of Hardware plus Launching*
(millions of 1970 dollars)

Scout

3.6

Delta (= Thor-Delta)

9.0

Atlas-Agena

17.8

Atlas-Centaur

19.4

Titan IIIC

28.6

Saturn IB

56.0

Saturn V

225.0

 
Source: NASA Comptroller's Office.
 
* These are only order-of-magnitude costs. Moreover, they are the prices after many years experience. NASA had hoped Scout would cost about $1 million per rocket, but both inflation and programs to improve performance raised the price substantially above the target. Inflation and improvement programs also increased the cost of Delta over the years.
 

 
[162] ....expensive spacecraft. From experience with Explorers, a rule of thumb developed that scientific spacecraft would cost about $20,000 to $40,000 per kilogram, but in time more complicated and sophisticated vehicles, such as the larger deep-space probes, were far more expensive. Typical costs for NASA scientific spacecraft are shown in table 7.
 
The tabulation illustrates why many scientists were wary about getting into projects using the larger spacecraft. The cost of about three-quarters of a million dollars for four Vikings could pay for at least twice as many Pioneers, or for dozens of Explorers. When the costs of the Viking program continued year after year to delay undertaking Pioneer missions to Venus, there were strong protests. For both satellites and space probes, the larger spacecraft were recognized as essential to the accomplishment of many important investigations, but generally were not acceptable at the sacrifice of the smaller missions, which gave the scientist more flexibility and personal freedom of action.
 
Manned spacecraft were an order of magnitude more expensive that unmanned satellites and probes. This was so not only because of the larger....
 

 
Table 7

Scientific Spacecraft Costs

Spacecraft
Cost per Kilogram *
(thousands of 1970 dollars)

Explorer

20-40

Interplanetary Monitoring Platform

50

Orbiting Solar Observatory (depending on complexity)

30-70

Orbiting Geophysical Observatory

70

Orbiting Astronomical Observatory

55

Small Astronomy Satellite

174

High Energy Astronomical Observatory

60

Surveyor

85-90

Lunar Orbiter

95

Pioneer (from no.6 on)

175-225

Mariner

85-105

Viking Orbiter

85

 
Source: NASA Comptroller's Office.
 
* Order-of-magnitude figures only.
 

 
[163] .....size and greater complexity of vehicles that were to carry men, but also because every effort had to be bent to guarantee the safety of the crew. Trying to guarantee perfect performance was very costly, often requiring much redundancy. For unmanned spacecraft and launch vehicles, it did not make economic sense to try to achieve the same degree of refinement. Scout, for example, was designed to be an inexpensive launch vehicle for science and applications missions. Reasonable care and good engineering and operational practices could achieve success rates of 90 percent or better, and still keep the vehicle in the inexpensive category. To try to guarantee 100-percent success, on the other hand, would have increased costs enormously. Thus, if one required 10 successful firings for a certain program, and was willing to shoot for getting those 10 successes out of a total of 11 or 12 firings, the total program costs would be much lower than if one insisted on achieving the 10 successes with only 10 firings.
 
The author vividly remembers a discussion of this point before the Space Science and Applications Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics during hearings on NASA's fiscal 1966 budget request. Concerned that NASA might be escalating the costs of Scout by insisting on too high a degree of reliability, Congressman Weston Vivian, himself a former engineer, queried Edgar Cortright, deputy in the Office of Space Science and Applications, on the matter.48 While acknowledging the desirability of striking a proper balance between costs and reliability, NASA people took special delight in this new twist. The normal experience was to be challenged to explain why the unmanned program wasn't striving all-out, as in the manned program, to achieve perfection.
 
Neither NASA nor the Department of Defense had carte blanche to spend unlimited sums on rockets and spacecraft. While desiring that the nation's space program should be first rate and that the country should regain the image of leadership in the field, the administration and Congress still were concerned that costs be kept down. While it was apparent at the outset that in time many agencies would come to be interested in applying space techniques to their work, it soon became equally apparent that these agencies could not expect to operate their own launch and spacecraft facilities. If the Weather Bureau, the Geological Survey, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Maritime Commission, the Department of Agriculture, and the Forest Service had attempted to run their own space programs, the aggregated costs would have been prohibitive. As a consequence it was expected that NASA, and occasionally the Department of Defense, would service other agencies wishing to use space methods in their own programs. As the number of space applications grew over the years, more and more of NASA's work was expected to go into providing support to others.
 
But manpower and money were not the only price to pay for exploring and utilizing space. As the example of the ill-fated Atlas-Able missions showed, there were failures and frustrations to endure. Also, rockets and [164] spacecraft could at times be hazardous. Perhaps the best known illustrations were the Apollo fire, in which three astronauts were burned to death in a tragic holocaust of flammable materials in the oxygen atmosphere used in the Apollo capsule, and the April 1967 flight of Soyuz 1, in which Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed.49 Because of the universal interest in the manned flight program, these tragedies received worldwide attention. Apollo, for example, became the subject of an intense, deeply probing congressional investigation.50 But others also gave their lives in the course of the program, though with less notice from the public. Astronauts who died in accidents in their training airplanes received only momentary notice. On 5 October 1967, at Northern American Rockwell's plant in Downey, California, a hazardous mixture containing barium used in NASA sounding rocket experiments exploded, killing 2 workmen and injuring 11. The accident was thoroughly investigated by a NASA board and the procedures for handling such chemicals were revised. To the public, however, the matter appeared to pass as just another industrial accident.51
 
Just as tragic as the Apollo fire was the accident to an Orbiting Solar Observatory on 14 April 1964. In an assembly room at Cape Canaveral, Delta rocket's third stage motor had just been mated to the spacecraft in preparation for some prelaunch tests. Suddenly the rocket ignited, filling the workroom with searing hot gases, burning 11 engineers and technicians, 3 of them fatally. An investigation following the accident showed that a spark of static electricity had probably set off the fuze that ignited the solid propellant.52 But, whereas the Apollo fire had evoked a national outcry, the OSO accident drew little attention except from those closely associated with the project.
 
One measure of the difficulty encountered in a development program was the increase in cost and schedules over the original estimates. When estimates proved on the mark, engineering difficulties had been correctly estimated and the project could be carried out in the specified time and for the stated price. But when unexpected technical problems required extra time to solve, costs increased and exceeded the original estimates. These overruns, as they were called, were usual in the complex, novel developments of the space program, and special management attention was needed
 
The Department of Defense had experienced such problems in the development and acquisition of large weapon systems. Studies showed that in the course of 12 major development projects, costs increased by an average 3.2 times and schedules lengthened by 36 percent.53 NASA fared little better.
 
Although the space agency, after its initial troubles, began to develop an enviable record of successes in its numerous programs, acquiring during the 1960s a reputation of being able to do what it set out to do, nevertheless the record was not as neat as the agency would have desired. An analysis [165] in 1969 by D. D. Wyatt, who from the start had played an important role in NASA's programming and budgeting, showed that cost increases over the life of a project were likely to rise substantially when the estimates were made before "establishing a well-defined spacecraft design and a clear definition of required experiment development."54 Space science programs had their share of horrible examples. The Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory, and Surveyor all increased in cost by about four times, as did the meteorological satellite, Nimbus. In contrast, the communications satellite projects Relay and Syncom, and the Applications Technology Satellite, for each of which a good definition of requirements was reached before estimating, showed only moderate cost increases, by between 1.1 and 1.3 times. While the manned spaceflight projects showed somewhat lower cost rises, Wyatt noted that the cost projections were made a considerable time after the projects had started and that there was evidence that estimates at the true start would have been much lower and cost increases accordingly much higher.
 
Wyatt's basic thesis was correct. His analysis, however, did not go unchallenged. Hans Mark, director of the Ames Research Center, wrote that the analysis failed to take into account that programs sometimes were expanded in scope in midstream, as had happened in the Pioneer program. This, of course, also added to the total cost, but such increases were not properly classed as overruns. To get a true picture, one needed to take into account intentional changes in program.55
 
The Orbiting Astronomical Observatory was a good example of the kinds of trouble one could get into by trying to force too big a technological step. Some of the required subsystems for the satellite were not far enough along to ensure a smooth development of the spacecraft. The star trackers, for example, essential for establishing the stellar reference frame against which the spacecraft would be stabilized, ran into difficulties that took a long time to resolve. The cost of solving the problem was only part of the total increase, for, while engineers wrestled with the star trackers, a far greater number of workers on the rest of the observatory project also had to be paid as they waited for the star trackers.56
 
The observatory finally proved to be a powerful astronomical facility. But in retrospect it can be seen that NASA might have done better to follow the recommendations of its advisers, who would have preferred to start with a less ambitious astronomy satellite that would have permitted astronomical observations sooner. Having the less capable astronomy satellite sooner, the astronomers would have been content to wait for the larger one, as Edward Purcell and other members of the White House's Space Science Panel had indicated.57
 
Both Ranger and Surveyor suffered from launch vehicle troubles. Five launch vehicle failures in a row impeded the development of Ranger, drawing the attention of NASA management and the Congress. When on the [166] sixth flight the launch vehicle finally did work, sending the Ranger spacecraft precisely to the intended spot on the moon, only to have Ranger's television system fail in the last seconds, the reaction was swift. Searching investigations into the engineering and management of the project were conducted both within NASA and by the Congress.58 The performance of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Office of Space Science and Applications was under scrutiny, as well as that of the television contractor, Radio Corporation of America. The steps proposed to solve the problems were carefully examined by NASA management, and only the resounding success of Ranger 7 averted what might have been drastic management changes.
 
Surveyor's launch vehicle troubles were of a more subtle kind. At the start the project suffered from lack of adequate management attention at both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the contractor, Hughes Aircraft Company. But Surveyor's difficulties were exacerbated by simultaneous development of launch vehicle and spacecraft. The Centaur was the first major rocket to use the high-energy propellants liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Advanced Research Projects Agency had started Centaur in 1958 before NASA was created. When NASA took over responsibility, the project had been handled more as a research project than as a serious development effort, but NASA considered the Centaur stage an important Component of the launch vehicle stable.
 
Nevertheless, since only estimates could be given of the vehicle's performance, it was difficult for Surveyor engineers to pin down weight and payload requirements for their spacecraft. These difficulties were further enhanced by the large number of other spacecraft being assigned to Centaur, influencing specifications for the rocket. In April 1962 Surveyor, Mariner, a variety of near-earth and synchronous-orbit missions, and the Department of Defense's communications satellite, Advent, were assigned to the Centaur.59 The synchronous-orbit missions-that is, launchings to an altitude of 36000 km, where the satellite's rate of revolution would equal the earth's rate of rotation-would be about as demanding as missions to the moon.
 
When the program difficulties-including failure of the first flight test of Centaur-became too intense, NASA cut the Gordian knot by asserting that the initial Centaur would be developed for Surveyor only. Once Centaur had proved successful, a suitable program to uprate the vehicle could be instituted to meet additional requirements. Along with this decision, NASA also moved management of Centaur from the Marshall Space Flight Center-where the demands of Saturn preempted the center's management attention-to the Lewis Research Center.60
 
But these changes did not come before Congress again had seen fit to delve into how NASA was performing. Congressman Joseph Karth's Space [167] Science and Applications Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics explored all aspects of Centaur: its management, its importance to the space program, its funding, the contractor, and even the engineering principles underlying the design.61 Such investigations into NASA failures made it perfectly plain that the agency had to bend every effort to avoid mishaps and provided much of the motivation for Associate Administrator Seaman's policy, mentioned earlier, of seeking success on the first try. A variety of management tools was used to make the policy succeed. During the fall of 1963 and throughout 1964, much attention was given to devising and applying more effective management.62
 
For the development of the Polaris missile, the Navy had devised what was called the Program Evaluation Review Technique, or PERT, system.63 This laid out in graphical form the schedules of the different parts of a project to show how individual schedules were interrelated, and in particular to highlight the components or subsystems that were most likely to delay the whole project. Once highlighted, the critical elements of the project could be given the necessary funding and management and engineering attention needed to keep them moving in pace with the rest of the project. NASA adapted this system to its own projects.
 
Like the Department of Defense, NASA also experimented with special contracting devices to reduce cost overruns and delays in schedule.64 In the development of a new launch vehicle, spacecraft, or other equipment, it was not possible for either NASA or the contractor to specify in detail the product desired. Instead, performance specifications were given, and the technical approach then agreed on between NASA and the contractor. In this situation, the contractor was in no position to sign a fixed price contract. Instead, contracts were customarily "cost plus fixed fee," that is, the government agreed to pay the actual allowable costs incurred in the development, plus a fee that was based on the contractor's original estimate of what the costs would be. There was a certain amount of incentive in such an arrangement for a contractor to finish the work within the specified time and cost, for the longer a project ran and the higher the costs went, the smaller would be the percentage represented by the fee. Also, the performance of a company was bound to influence the government's decision on the choice of contractors for other projects.
 
But experience showed that these incentives were not particularly effective in keeping costs down and schedules short. Therefore, additional incentives were introduced in the form of bonuses for meeting or beating schedules within estimated costs, and penalties for exceeding estimated costs and schedules.65 The value of such incentives was difficult to estimate precisely. Perhaps the greatest benefit lay in the increased management attention they evoked.
 
One of the most effective ways to keep costs down was to see that schedules were met. The longer a project ran, the longer salaries on the project were being paid, hence the greater were the total costs. Time was [168] money, and if a project manager could keep to his schedule, he probably could keep close to his original cost estimates. A striking example was furnished by the 1967 Mariner mission to Venus, preparation for which began only a year or so before the launch date. Since the date for launching a spacecraft to a planet is fixed by the celestial mechanics of the solar system, there was no leeway in the schedule and the date had to be met. One result was that the project was completed for slightly less than the original cost estimate.66
 
Most projects had several distinct phases. First was the period in which the project was being conceived. The specific objectives would be worked out-for example, to investigate the solar wind and magnetic fields in interplanetary space. The feasibility of the project would be determined. Could appropriate experiments be designed and instrumented? Did a suitable spacecraft for the experiments exist or could one be made? Was there a suitable launch vehicle that could be used? Much of the effort during this phase would be paper work, supported by limited amounts of laboratory research.
 
A second phase would be that in which engineering studies analyzed various approaches, seeking, if possible, a best one. During this phase performance specifications were worked out, to provide the basis for detailed engineering design carried out in the third phase. Once the engineering design had been completed, it was possible to move into the fourth, final phase, that of actual development, in which hardware was made and tested. Major costs in the project would come during the fourth phase, and if delays occurred because engineering difficulties had not been properly anticipated during the earlier phases, large overruns could accumulate.
 
To try to avoid such overruns, NASA instituted what it called a "phased project planning system," recognizing four phases A, B, C, and D, corresponding to those described above.67 The plan required completing the early phases before proceeding to later ones. The costs of phases A and B would be a minor part of the project expense, and one could afford to spend time at these stages getting matters right. Similarly, in the detail design phase, C, although costs would be appreciably higher than in phases A and B, they would still be far less than those of the construction phase, D. Again, it would pay to spend whatever time was needed in phase C to avoid problems later in phase D.
 
The phased project planning document was used in NASA less as a bible than as a set of useful guidelines. Wyatt's study seemed to show that when the principles embodied in the phasing scheme were followed, costs and schedules were indeed kept in line.
 
By such devices NASA sought to sustain a high level of performance For its own use, the Office of Space Science and Applications held monthly status reviews, just before those of the associate administrator. At these reviews progress and problems were discussed for all parts of the program. [169] Beginning in November 1966 these reviews, which had already been going on for several years, were documented in OSSA Management Reports.68
 
To keep a tight rein on the agency's activities, the administrator required that the program offices obtain formal approval of all programs or projects. This process evolved over the years until in the latter 1960s a signed Project Approval Document-or PAD, as it came to be called-was required for each major element of the program.69 The PAD set forth the purpose of the project or program, outlined approaches to be taken, and gave estimates of schedules, manpower, and costs. The document described how the phases A, B, C, and D would be accomplished. Where outside contractors were to be used, a procurement plan acceptable to NASA's legal and procurement offices had to be provided. Before a program office could obtain approval to move to the later phases of an approved project, the office in charge would have to furnish a detailed project development plan showing that the groundwork had been properly laid and that the path to completion of the project had been thought through. Administrator Webb liked to refer to the Project Approval Documents as contracts between him and his program managers. They furnished written evidence, for those who might wish to probe the agency's performance, of the care that NASA took to ensure effective performance on its projects.
 
The wide scope of the space science program required a large number of space science PADs. Although these were primarily the concern of the program and project managers, they did affect the scientists themselves, in that experimenters were required to meet schedules, adhere to cost estimates, and furnish an appreciable portion of the documentation needed by managers to keep track of progress on their projects. Much of this was onerous to the scientists, who preferred to spend their time on their experiments. For manned spaceflight projects especially, where managers felt keenly the burden of ensuring absolute success, not only to justify the many dollars spent on the program but more importantly to protect the safety of astronauts, the schedules were quite rigid, and documentation considerably more detailed than for unmanned projects. Many scientists shied away from working in the manned program, preferring to fly their experiments in unmanned spacecraft for which the management requirements were less burdensome.
 
It is not likely that advanced research and development programs like those of NASA and the Department of Defense will ever be entirely free of mishaps and failures, cost overruns and schedule slips. Working at the frontiers of science and technology, the likelihood of encountering unforeseen technical difficulties must ever be present. The prescription for performing satisfactorily under such conditions is constant management attention and the most effective techniques for reducing the unforeseen to only the unforeseeable. In the space program, such management attention could produce acceptable performance. For launch vehicles, NASA's [170] performance improved over the years from a very poor showing in the first two years, to better than 90 percent successes in the 1970s (fig. 30).70 With spacecraft the success-on-the-first-try policy appeared to bear fruit. During the 1960s every Explorer satellite that was properly placed in space by its launch vehicle achieved its mission. The Orbiting Solar Observatory, Surveyor, Lunar Orbiter, Mariner, and Viking worked the first time out, as did the Canadian Alouette, the British Ariel, and the Italian San Marco. The first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory failed, but the second was highly productive. Like the astronomy observatory, Biosatellite was successful on its second flight. In spite of its hectic development history, the second time Ranger reached the moon it performed perfectly.
 
To complete the picture, applications satellites that succeeded right away included the Tiros and Nimbus weather satellites, the Echo, Syncom, and Intelsat communications satellites, NASA's Applications Technology Satellite, and the geodetic satellite Geos. All the manned spaceflight spacecraft-Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Lunar Module-worked on their initial manned flights.71 After more than a decade of experience, both NASA and the Department of Defense came to expect spacecraft to function correctly once they were launched properly, and with the increasing reliability of launch vehicles, the probability of success on a mission was very high.
 
With reliable launchers and spacecraft available to carry out their experiments, scientists could conduct a variety of experiments from near the earth to the remote regions of the solar system, and the value of what they did depended very much on their own scientific competence. Recognizing this, NASA had consciously set out to interest the best of the nation's scientists in the space science program. Policies for supporting research, procedures for selecting experiments and experimenters, and arrangements for securing to NASA the best possible advice were designed to attract the best researchers into the program. Most important was the policy of letting the space science program become very much the creation of the scientists, with projects to attack the problems the scientists themselves perceived as the most fundamental and most likely to provide important new knowledge. The way in which this policy was put into practice is the subject of chapter 12. Before proceeding with the narrative, however, it is appropriate to review some of the significant space science results obtained in NASA's first three or four years.
 

 
Line graph of the NASA Record of Spaceflight Performance (as of 12-31-1957
 
 

Calendar year

58

59

60

61

62

63

64

65

66

67

68

69

70

71

72

73

74

75

Total

NASA Payloads

Attempts

4

14

17

24

27

13

30a

28a

29b

22

18a

16

9

11

10

10

5

13

300

Successes

0

8

9

15

20

11

25

23

22

20

15

13

6

9

10

9

4

12

231

% successful

0

57

53

63

74

85

83

82

76

91

83

81

66

82

100

90

80

92

77

NASA vehicles (some carrying non-NASA payloads)

Attempts

4

14

17

24

27

15

30

30

36

27

23

22

14

18

18

14

17

21

316

Successes

0

8

10

16

23

14

27

26

34

25

19

20

13

16

18

13

15

19

371

% successful

0

57

59

67

85

93

90

87

94

93

83

91

93

89

100

93

88

91

85

 
a Two missions launched on a single vehicle.
b Five missions on two vehicles are included.
c These figures include NASA vehicles used for non-NASA or cooperative missions.
 
 
[171] Figure 30. NASA success rate. After a poor beginning, NASA's success rate rose steadily, eventually bettering 90 percent. NASA, "Historical Pocket Statistics" (Jan. 1972 and Jan. 1976); Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1972, NASA SP-4017 (1974), app. B.
 

 
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