Amid all the recent discussion of the Augustine Committee’s results, Mark Whittington asks a question that a lot of people in Congress seem to be asking: “Why not just pay for the current program since any new program is going to cost more money anyway?” To elaborate, the line of reasoning goes that if the only problem is money, and if we’re going to need to boost the NASA top-line in order to do exploration beyond earth orbit anyway, why not just stick with the current plan.
Let’s turn to the Augustine Report itself for some information. On pages 83 and 84 they discuss implementing the Program of Record on entirely unconstrained budgets–ie if we gave the program the full funding it needs to execute, and allot it to move at the full pace it can realistically move at, what do we get?
- A $145B pricetag over the 2010-2020 timeframe, which doesn’t even get us to the point of having Ares V and the LSAM ready for operations, much less a moonbase. This would require almost $5B extra per year–ie a 25% increase in NASA’s topline budget.
- An international space station deorbited within 5 years of its completion, during which time the only method of access would be by paying the Russian government for flights.
- A crew launch vehicle that becomes available two years after its first destination is deorbited, and whose operational costs have to be carried for over half a decade until we have any of the tools that would be necessary to actually use it for anything. But don’t worry, we can spend $2B+ per year to send even fewer astronauts flying in even more useless circles.
- A seven plus year manned orbital spaceflight gap in the US.
- Almost no investment in long-term technology development (not much more than the current SBIR budget, and entirely focused on short-term Constellation needs, not on making future missions safer, more affordable, and more valuable).
- No stimulation of commercial industry beyond the CRS contracts which wouldn’t be extended since the ISS would be gone by 2016. No investment or early market for commercial crew delivery
- No money to actually develop hardware for actually doing anything on the Moon, since almost all of the money will go to figuring out how to go there while maximizing employment in Shelbyville.
- No more robotic orbiters or landers for years to follow-up on the work LCROSS did.
But hey, at least if we do it this way, sometime 15+ years from now, we’ll have the ability to send 8 people to the moon every year at the cost of an “exploration” program that costs almost as much per year as NASA’s entire current budget!
If you assume that there are parts of NASA outside of Huntsville that actually matter (ie that NASA != Northern Alabama Space Administration), the situation gets even worse. In order to fund Constellation at full speed without splashing the space station almost as soon as it’s completed, you would need $159B over that timeframe, which constitutes a $7B per year increase for NASA. That increase still:
- Gets you a space station you can’t access without the Russians for most of its operational lifetime (why does Congress trust Russian commercial space more than American commercial space, btw?).
- Gets you no real investment in long-term technologies, ensuring that the cost, safety, and efficiency of manned spaceflight will be stagnant for another couple decades.
- Gets you no real investment or encouragement of the commercial industry (in direct contravention of the laws of the land and NASA’s charter I might mention).
- Gets you no more robotic follow-ons for LRO and LCROSS for over 15 years.
Compare this with the Flexible Path option that Mark likes to mock so much. For less than half as much of an increase per year, you get:
- Robust ISS utilization through 2020, with multiple methods of providing crew and cargo delivery that aren’t all dependent on Russia
- Investments in commercial space that can help keep the US in the forefront of space technology and utilization
- Robust investments in high-payoff medium-term technologies like propellant depots, space radiation, space nuclear power, aerocapture and other EDL techniques, ISRU, and other high-payoff technologies that can vastly lower the cost of future exploration missions, allowing us to accomplish more for less and at lower risk.
- A manned lunar landing program that at most is only 3-4 years behind the current PoR, but when it gets there, it provides a much more affordable, more commercially and internationally interesting program, and has much greater capabilities once you get there.
- A manned spaceflight program that is much more capable of exploring the whole inner solar system, and not just doing a few flags and footprints landing on the Moon.
- A manned spaceflight program that builds on and leverages our impressive achievements in robotic space exploration.
- A program that in spite of doing a lot more looking, also allows a lot more touching of new destinations like NEOs and Phobos/Deimos, all on about the same timeframe that the PoR would at best be going for its first lunar landings.
Where I come from, we tend to think that getting a heck of a lot less while paying a heck of a lot more is usually the sign of a sucker. I just wish that a few space pundits and public figures didn’t keep enabling Senator Shelby and his ilk from hijacking NASA’s budget to enrich his campaign contributors at the rest of our expense.
[Note: As an aside, am I the only one who finds Shelby's latest childish tantrum accusing the Augustine Committee of being compromised by biased by evil commercial lobbyists to be richly and hilariously ironic? When it comes to lecturing people about the evils of lobbyists corrupting the political process for their own personal gain, Senator Shelby has about as much moral standing as Tiger Woods does when it comes to lecturing people about marital fidelity.]