Launching instruments into orbit is expensive. When a spacecraft in orbit stops functioning, fixing it is normally not an option; nor will it be possible to retrieve the instrument for diagnosis.

If an instrument is attached to the ISS, it may or may not be possible to fix problems. But what about bringing it back to Earth? For example, SMILES stopped working relatively soon after it started making measurements. The design did not allow for reparation. Do they take the non-functioning instrument back to Earth or do they simply "push away" the instrument? What would be the cost of retrieving it?

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    $\begingroup$ There is another question: is it possible at all to retrieve the instrument? For instance, it has to fit through the hatch. SMILES looks pretty big. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 16:48

2 Answers 2


At the moment the only way to retrieve payload from the ISS is via the SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Previously the Space Shuttle admirably served this role, with the ability to take large and heavy payloads back, up to 32,000lbs (center of gravity/balance limits greatly limit this in practice).

Dragon can return 5,000 lbs of payload, so significantly less. (Beyond LDEF, STS-51A two satellites, SpaceLab, MPLMs, not that much big was ever returned).

Soyuz can return on the order of 100 kilos max, and depends on the mass of the astronauts returning, so functionally almost nothing.

Space Shuttle costs are next to impossible to reasonably calculate. Consider the range of costs assigned to flights that can range from \$300 million to \$2 billion. How you would break that down for return payload? Likely not possible.

Dragon's contract is only for upmass, per se. The downmass is icing on the cake.

Now if CASIS is providing your transit to the station, the question is, would they offer you a return cost?

The RFI for the second Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-2, not to be confused with the CRS-2 flight by SpaceX, nor the CRS-2 mission flown by Orbital).

What is interesting is that CRS-2 expects vendors to provide almost equal return or disposal services as to launch services. Thus for CRS-2, the commercial providers are bidding craft that can launch 14,000K a year in 4-5 launches, but also dispose of or return 14,000K of cargo in return.

More interesting is that it acknowledges that either the CBM or PMA may be used for berthing or docking, and that plans need to explain how to handle large cargo.

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    $\begingroup$ Progress spacecrafts can host the VBK-Raduga reentry ballistic capsule. It can bring down up to 150 kg. It hasn't been used on ISS, ony on Mir. But Progress spacecrafts haven't changed much. $\endgroup$
    – user54
    Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 18:54

SpaceX, not sure about cost but here I found the price. On December 23, 2008, SpaceX won a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to haul NASA cargo to the International Space Station. The contract covered 12 missions planned to fly between 2010 and 2016. SpaceX would use its Dragon spacecraft to perform the missions. (updated Jan8,14) Source : http://www.spacelaunchreport.com/falcon9.html

  • $\begingroup$ So how much of that 1.6 billion is for return? How much for launch services? How do you compare that to Orbital Sciences 1.8Billion for 8 launches, with no return? Functionally indeterminate. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ As a random reader I have to confess that I don't know. But thanks for your questions tho. I'm quite curious too. So I guess, according to wiki, it charges by cost per weight ''As of March 2013, Falcon 9 launch prices are $4,109 per kilogram ($1,864/lb) to low-Earth orbit when the launch vehicle is transporting its maximum cargo weight''(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_9_v1.1) This is also gives me brief idea about the cost too. qz.com/153969/… $\endgroup$
    – Anny
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 2:58
  • $\begingroup$ This is also a good example between SpaceX and Thaicom launch deal. ''Thaicom 8 will carry 24 Ku-band transponders and weigh approximately 3,100 kilograms, or about 6,800 pounds, when fueled for launch. The satellite will have an operating life of 16 years. Including expenses for the satellite, launch, ground segment and insurance, the Thaicom 8 project is expected to cost $178.5 million" spaceflightnow.com/news/n1405/04thaicom8/#.VE2zIiLLeyI $\endgroup$
    – Anny
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ I think you miss the point entirely. :) Till this point in time, traditionally, launch providers charge for the way up. It is not clear anyone has a list price to return cargo yet. NASA pays a flat rate for a Dragon flight, including up and down cargo. SpaceX is only required to launch 20,000 Kilos under the contract, no requirement on downmass per se that I am aware of. This is a brand new area to explore, which is pretty cool. But upmass costs are mostly irrelavent to the question. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ yeah I was thinking I miss the point since my very first answer :P your comments is very instructive. interesting stuff to be discussed after all. $\endgroup$
    – Anny
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 1:55

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