Analyzing the Cost of a Lunar Mission
By Nathan Wong on September 30, 2013
Analyzing the Cost of a Lunar Mission
There are many different elements that contribute to the cost of completing the Google Lunar XPRIZE, but is there a way to break this down to get a better idea of where the money will go? The International Academy of Astronautics has developed a structure for determining cost per flight of launch vehicles, which has five main categories: Vehicle Cost, Direct Operations Cost, Indirect Operations Cost, Business Charges, and Insurance Cost. This article will try to explain these categories with respect to a lunar mission.
The vehicle cost is probably the most well known and understood category of what makes up the actual cost. For the Google Lunar XPRIZE the vehicle cost will come from three main components. The first is the launch vehicle. For most teams, this will be a purchased item. The second is the ‘mobility’ vehicle (rover, hopper, etc). All of the teams have a unique mobility vehicle and this cost comes from the design, assembly, integration, and testing. The third element of vehicle cost is the lander. This cost is not present for all teams. Some teams will be using the same vehicle for both lunar landing and mobility, and some teams are purchasing a rideshare to the Moon with another team. Again, like the mobility vehicle, the cost here represents the design, assembly, integration, and testing of the landing vehicle.
Direct Operations Cost
The direct operations cost encompasses the activities related to the launch and mission operations. These costs can include mission planning in the beginning of the project as well as communication and tracking during the mission and performance assessment and analysis after the mission. In addition to these tasks performed by people, direct operations cost can also include tangible items such as propellant, or intangible items such as the launch site fees.
Indirect Operations Cost
Indirect Operations Costs represent the amount of funds used by a company to pay for non-mission support items. Typical items that fall in the indirect operations cost include office fees, marketing, legal, and travel. Although these are not the most glamorous items, they are costs that must be taken into account when budgeting for a mission. Failure to accurately predict costs can cause setbacks later in the project.
The previous three items are the cost of the mission, but teams may eventually try and sell complete missions. The business charge is the markup on the cost to provide profit for the company. The cost plus the business charges are the price for the consumer. Business charges can also include other factors such as subsidies where a third party, usually the government, provides some money at no cost. Subsidies can sometimes lead to the price paid by the customer being less than the cost to produce it. This practice can be good to help a struggling industry, but is unsustainable.
Insurance costs in the space industry come from two main forms, launch vehicle insurance, and commercial satellite operational insurance. Insurance for launch vehicles is pretty standard in the industry ranging from 10-30% of the payload value. Commercial satellite operational insurance deals mostly with communications satellites’ ability to send and receive transmissions, which they use to make money. Commercial satellites benefit from using well known technology so that insurance underwriters have information on performance expectations. This is not necessarily the case for Google Lunar XPRIZE teams who might be using new technology, especially since they are operating in an environment we have not been to since 1973.
There is more to financing a lunar mission than just the cost of materials. Hopefully this post breaks down some of the extra costs that the teams must cover and helps you understand what exactly goes into mission cost estimates that teams may give. Although not all the cost of the mission are represented in these five categories, they give a good overall picture of what it might take to make it to the Moon!