Constellation’s Future? [Updated]

Several recent news items paint an interesting budgetary picture for the future of NASA’s preferred approach for spending tens of billions of dollars to send a few government employees to visit the Moon sometime supposedly starting in 2020.

The three big pieces of new information (in addition to NASA not getting the large budget increases the past few years that it had been expecting) are:

  • The push to extend the shuttle past 2010, at least until ISS is complete and possibly until Ares-I/Orion is flying
  • The story that NASA’s plan for flying Orion for the first time in 2015 is supposedly at a 0% confidence level, and that their 65% confidence level is now sliding to sometime in 2017
  • The story that the ISS partners may keep ISS flying through 2020, instead of retiring it in 2016 as had been originally been counted on in the Constellation budgetting

As I previously mentioned in a post about Constellation, one of the problems with megaprojects like this is that a lot of the money is tied up in payroll, not in bending actual hardware.  Most of the cost is the burdened rate of engineers butts in seats spending all day chasing mice around desks in Houston, Huntsville, and other locales.  What that means is that getting less than planned will actually stretch the timeline out further than you would think just from looking at the total cost.

For instance, say Ares-I and Orion together are supposed to cost $30B between 2005 and first flight in say 2015.  Say $20B of that is payroll, and $10B is actual hardware.  That comes out on average to $3B per year over a decade.  Now, what happens if NASA only gets $2.5B per year?  Naively you could say “well $2.5B is 5/6ths of the ammount they had been hoping for, so it ought to take 6/5ths as long, or ~12 years”.  But in reality, unless NASA can reduce payroll expenses (by firing people, laying them off, reassigning them to other tasks under other budget categories, etc), it could actually stretch the date out a lot longer.  Possibly as long as ten years longer in the hypothetical case I mentioned above, if the budget, payroll burn rate per year and total hardware needed for completion stay constant. In fact, in such a case, if the funding dropped too far, you could basically reach a point where things grind almost completely to a halt.

This is for instance a large part of why MSL’s budget went over so much.  They missed their launch window, and they need certain people around when it does launch, so they have to pay them for an extra ~2yrs so they don’t lose the talent.

Now in reality, there are things that can be done to mitigate some of this.  NASA can cut back somewhat on its workforce.  It can assign some of the people to start early design work on later products like Ares V or Altair.  It can pull more of the fabrication of prototypes and such in house.  I can try moving stuff around and playing budgetary shell games.  If the shuttle gets extended, at least some of the “keeping the team around” dead-weight expenses can be covered in the Shuttle program budget.

But at the end of the day, a manpower intensive project (especially one that is by design little more than a jobs program intended to keep as many cafeterias in Huntsville, Houston, and Brevard County full as possible) like this one is particularly susceptible to budgetting issues.  If NASA’s topline budget isn’t bumped up to pay for keeping the shuttle flying or keeping ISS operating, there are going to be serious delays in the Constellation program.  Between those two items, you’re talking almost $2B a year that Don Miguel de Grifo had been planning on spending on Constellation not being available.  Right now, even if that extra $2B per year was added in, we’re already looking at ~2017 to get Ares-I and Orion flying.  I notice that NASA almost never speaks of a date for their first planned lunar landing anymore.  Especially not with any sort of confidence level quoted.  My guess is that we’re probably talking 2023-2024 even if Congress provides NASA with extra funds for keeping Shuttle and ISS going.  If NASA doesn’t get extra funding to keep Shuttle and ISS operating, you could be looking at no manned lunar missions for another 20 years.

Now maybe someone with more access to the numbers will prove that this is all wet, but especially if pushers of the status quo get their way, I don’t see any way that NASA’s bloated Moon program is ever going to get off the ground.  And that’s assuming no more technical problems with Ares-I or Orion.  I’m just wondering how long before someone pulls the plug on this zombie program.

[Update: Senator Shelby apparently agrees that keeping Shuttle flying past 2010 and keeping ISS flying through 2020 are not compatible with Ares-I without large budget increases.  It’s interesting to note that it appears that Sen Nelson’s parochial interests (keeping as many cafeterias in Brevard county full) and Sen Shelby’s parochial interests (keeping as many cafeterias in Huntsville full) seem to be somewhat in conflict here.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens.]

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5 Responses to Constellation’s Future? [Updated]

  1. MG says:

    Jon,

    Nice summary of the high (mostly) fixed costs that Constellation incurs. I suspect that NASA’s will return astronauts to the moon at some point after New Space has opened the first McDonald’s there.

    Congrats again on Yuri. Quite the handsome lad!

  2. Rich says:

    I’m going to be unnecessarily flippant, but what do $2bn worth of salaried people do all day? If each one is earning in the region $100-$200K pa then we’re talking at least 10,000 people. How can building rockets be so hard that it needs such an army of folk?

  3. MG says:

    Rich,
    The problem isn’t the engineers so much as it is the (mis)interpretation of policy into program.
    Imagine, if you will, that a major civil engineering and construction firm has organized and mobilized for a major construction project — a bridge, say.
    The client then decides that instead of a bridge, they want a tunnel.
    Do you include the accrued costs into the costs of the tunnel? What about the “standing army” of subcontractors and workers that turned down business for the bridge construction project?
    The designers may be very busy throughout, updating construction drawings, specifications, and schedules. They don’t FEEL like they are spinning their wheels, but the program is, all the while burning through cash.
    And continues to do so until the program is cancelled altogether, or reconfigured into something that is actually affordable and achievable.

  4. Roderick Reilly says:

    Thank you, John for this illuminating post. As someone who worked at the old Space Station Program Office, and then later worked with both the DC-X and Clementine teams, the contrast in approaches and program costs and results was both startling and revealing.

    And Eric: thank you for the link to the NASA blogs. I read them. Good to know the thinking inside NASA.

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