Why Not Just Fund the Program of Record?

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.]

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

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31 Responses to Why Not Just Fund the Program of Record?

  1. PHILLIP says:

    I totally agree with you. The commission even went further than you and stated, even if POR had no development costs, NASA could not afford to operate it since it was too expensive.

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  3. john hare says:

    At what point, if ever, does Shelby become legally liable for actions contrary to the interests of the country? That question has been bugging me originally with Griffen, and now Shelby. If there are people that can do anything they want with no repercussions, what does that say to other people considering shading the rules, that it’s okay if you are high enough?

  4. Neil H. says:

    Of course, there’s also this key passage from the Augustine Report: “When it begins operations, the Ares I and Orion would be a very expensive system for crew transport to low-Earth orbit. Program estimates are that it would have a recurring cost of nearly $1 billion per flight, even with the fixed infrastructure
    costs being carried by Ares V.”

  5. ralph says:

    “Ares I and Orion would be a very expensive system for crew transport to low-Earth orbit. Program estimates are that it would have a recurring cost of nearly $1 billion per flight”

    And yet NASA won’t pay SpaceX the single payment of $0.3 billion that it needs to make Falcon 9 and Dragon fly humans. Strange. Why would that be?

    People should be more angry about what is happening.

  6. Don says:

    This has to be one of the most cogent pieces of the current situation I have ever read. Though mildly tainted by editorial bias, I personally think this should be required reading by every member of congress and key Administration people who lead the next step in America’s aeronautics and space programs. Additionally, it would be GREAT if we could somehow crowbar the pop media-types (Larry King, Oprah, 60 minutes, etc.) away from useless-for-my-children drivel (e.g. TW) and talk about something that will actually matter to humanity for the foreseeable future. I have to say that my inner boil about one Senator who has the nations space program by the (rhymes with “halls”) is barely contained by my otherwise thick skin. This whole drama unfolding will have the consequence of a muddled effort that will inspire few. I am unabashedly a card-carrying member of the camp that says NASA doesn’t need a “reason” to explore, push envelopes, innovate, search, research, learn, share… We should do these things because we can and if feels good and moves humanity forward. OK maybe there are reasons, but NOT to save an engineer’s job in Alabama!!

  7. Jon, thanks for a succinct summary of the failings of the Program of Record! Let’s call it the Program of official Record, and use the acronym PooR to refer to the current NASA budget plan. :)

    Paradox Olbers
    Head of Operations, the International Spaceflight Museum in Second Life
    (And we do have full-scale copies of both Ares-1 and Ares-V in our Rocket Ring.)
    Spike R. MacPhee in RL (real life)

  8. Tom D says:


    I’d calm down a bit. I personally think that Senator Shelby’s actions are “contrary to the interests of the country” as a whole, but that is my opinion. Other people including Senator Shelby can legitimately have different opinions. He is after all representing Alabama in the Senate. I rather imagine that he sees what he is doing as being in his state’s best interests. Unless he is taking bribes, there is probably nothing criminal about him carrying on as a die-hard supporter of Ares I and Ares V.

    We need to cool down the rhetoric and do our best to logically and positively persuade others that doing something other than the “program of record” would be better for our country. (I originally wrote *best* for our country, but I doubt that I can say that with 100% confidence). I applaud Jon for laying out his reasoning clearly and briefly here.

    There seems to be a fierce battle going on behind the scenes in Congress and the Administration about the future direction of NASA. Fierce, but small. There are a lot bigger battles going on in Washington about “stimulus”, “health care reform”, and “climate change”. I think the damages we are accruing from these battles are far more horrifying than what is going on at NASA. I find it strangely comforting that there actually is a battle going on over the small potatoes that is NASA. Maybe somebody actually is paying attention to at least some of the money that is being spent.

  9. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Thanks for the kind words! But I do have to disagree with something. “Mildly tainted by editorial bias”? You mean I didn’t try hard enough? 😉 Seriously though, I probably ought to take this post and make a slightly lower vitriol content version that could be posted on something like The Space Review, or an Op-Ed in Space News.


  10. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    While I probably could’ve left the venting part of the post for a separate post, I don’t think that Shelby deserves a pass. While there are things that Congresspeople can do for their constituents that are honorable and good, what Shelby is doing is barely more honorable than a thug or tribal chieftain enslaving neighboring tribes for the benefit of his home town. While there are ways for Congresspeople to economically benefit their local area that are honorable (ie finding ways to encourage commerce and economic development in a positive-sum way), what Shelby is doing is just legalized plunder, and I can’t have respect for that. Just because most if not all politicians do the same thing doesn’t make it any less a case of theft. And really, I’m setting the bar here pretty low. I’m just saying that so long as politicians are running NASA in a way that’s a net benefit for the nation, that that’s good enough for this pragmatic libertarian. But specifically running national programs in a way that benefits the few at the cost of the many is not honest, good, or respectable.

    If Senator Shelby wants my respect, he can try acting respectably.


  11. Roga says:

    I laughed when I first heard about Shelby’s request to grill the Augustine Commission. Talk about moves with a potential to backfire. It reeks of a drowning man clutching at straws.

  12. Chris Winter says:

    That’s one of your better posts: clear, succinct, and comprehensive. I noted especially the part about incentives for commercial activity on orbit disappearing when ISS is deep-sixed. (And the reference to “Shelbyville” — snarky, but appropriate.)

  13. I didn’t feel it worth a new blog post or updates, but Mark apparently still doesn’t get it. An “enhanced program of record” that adds in commercial crew somehow (and somehow protecting it from Shelby, Nelson, et al during a 7 year gap between when Ares-I first can fly and when Ares-V is ready, when the only destination Ares-I/Orion can reach is the ISS) does give you a bit more for the $72.5 Billion extra you need to cough up over the next 10 years. But it’s still nowhere near the return on investment you would get by scrapping the overly expensive, wasteful program of record and taking any of the alternatives. Even the Moon First alternative would cost $40B less, get you there faster and more sustainably, and get you many of the useful benefits that Flex Path would…

    Could someone buy the man a can of clue musk for Christmas?


    Link here: http://curmudgeons.blogspot.com/2009_12_01_archive.html#5893613545947912544#5893613545947912544

  14. The flexible path doesn’t go anywhere Jon. You should know this. To go anywhere other than lunar orbit (including L2) requires the development of a near-zero boil-off cryogenic stage (as the report says).. or a much heavier launch vehicle.. or a cis-lunar depot architecture. Really what you’re advocating is that NASA hand over all manned activities to commercial suppliers on fixed contracts (aka COTS-D) and put all the money into technology development until they can do beyond-LEO cheaply. There’s nothing wrong with saying that, but don’t call that Flexible Path cause that’s not what it is.

  15. Trent,

    I’m fine with NASA developing low boiloff stages and propellant depots (or paying for their implementation). That’s part of what that research money is supposed to be going to–adding new capabilities that greatly enhance what we can do in space…

    …where did I argue otherwise?


  16. Jon,

    My objection is in your use of the term Flexible Path to refer to a program that includes such developments. The proposal presented by the committee and labeled Flexible Path names a lot of destinations, none of which are accessible without such technology development (except lunar orbit), but includes a schedule which ignores the lead times of that development. As such, embarking on the Flexible Path today is a dedication to sending humans no further than lunar orbit until the technology program catches up with the vision. This is clearly not sensible – its better to focus attention on technology development before embarking on an exploration program beyond lunar orbit, as the architecture that results will make for a very different program – and so it makes no sense to refer to that program as the Flexible Path.

  17. Trent,
    You’re mistaken. The route they used for the schedule for flexible path assumed the development of one of the various Heavy Lifters. That development is in both the schedule and the budget for Flexible path. Funding for developing depots and other needed technologies is also in there. They didn’t give any dates, and didn’t assume the availability of depots, but they did include funding for robust technology development.

    To be sure, I’d prefer what you suggest–forgoing the heavy lifter, fast-tracking the development of depots and cryo stages, and then taking those next steps once the pieces are ready (and I’m pretty darned sure we can have a useable depot ready to enable missions beyond LLO before you’ve gotten to the point where the lack of such depots starts hurting–we’re talking 10-12 years from now, right?). But what the committee actually proposed for Flex Path is also plenty workable even if I don’t think it’s as optimal.

    But I don’t see where you claim that they aren’t factoring in the development time for HLVs, when that’s explicitly in the plan.

    I’m confused again.


  18. Steve Traugott says:

    Good job, Jon. Yes, slightly edited versions of this for mainstream circulation would be worth doing, I think. Even a stripped-down version with just some of the first set of bullet points — splash ISS right after it’s done, no manned launch capability for years, etc. Get people’s blood boiling.

    PoR is a train wreck. It’s a repeat of the 70’s all over again — cancel Apollo, let Skylab rot, wait for years for “the one true vehicle” to be finished, continue the pattern of huge, single-source systems with no redundancy.

    An aside to Trent: Cis-lunar depots, exactly. See the paper that Jon supplied to the commission (and that I get some of the blame for). I always thought that depots had to be these complicated systems. The more I worked on that paper with Jon, the more I realized that he’s not talking about much — a tank. A small booster to launch it, empty — fill the depot on orbit. Other small boosters, also launching partially dry, with payloads, topping off after launch. Since both the depots and the payload carriers are small enough to be credibly built and operated commercially, we wind up with a marketplace in LEO.

  19. Pingback: Arguing about Human Space Exploration | The Once and Future Moon

  20. Jon,

    They just say “destinations beyond lunar orbit assume the availability of a near-zero boil-off cryogenic upper stage”, they don’t actually estimate how long that will take or say how it will be funded, yet they advocate continuing the development of the heavy lift booster without it… thus dooming the project to lunar orbit.

  21. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Instead of assuming that the A-com is a bunch of idiots or liars, could it possibly be that the low-boiloff upper stage is part of the HLV development? Seriously, do you think they were dumb enough to say something was needed and then completely not account for budget or schedule, and then act as though it’s not needed? I can always walk down the street and ask Jeff, but really I think you’re making some pretty silly assumptions here.


  22. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Did you ever get a chance to read the AIAA paper I did with my Boeing, ULA, and U of Memphis friends last year? I was working on it when we were up in the Bay Area, but it didn’t come together till much later in the game than that. Here’s a link to a copy ULA put up on their website: http://www.ulalaunch.com/docs/publications/PropellantDepots2009.pdf

  23. Martijn Meijering says:

    To go anywhere other than lunar orbit (including L2) requires the development of a near-zero boil-off cryogenic stage (as the report says).. or a much heavier launch vehicle.. or a cis-lunar depot architecture.

    Likely true, but the lander can double as a depot. If you make it noncryogenic (MMH/NTO or kerosene/peroxide or methanol/peroxide) you don’t even need to put cryogenic propellant transfer on the critical path. All that can be done with existing technology and likely for less money than even Jon’s enlightened schemes and do so with comparable IMLEOs. Throw in SEP and you would likely end up being more efficient. And of course nothing would stop you from upgrading to cryogenics.

    Doing the Flexible Path this way would require EELV Phase 1, which is a good idea anyway given the mass of Orion and the benefits of consolidating EELV upper stages. It would use the smallest and cheapest possible HLV (EELV Phase 1), one that can reach back to current payloads levels, scale up to 2-4 moon missions a year (i.e. much more than is affordable) and the simplest possible depot, one that is noncryogenic and combined with a lander. This can give us the moon and together with small SEP tugs (current technology) Phobos, Deimos and perhaps Ceres. It would also give us most of the benefits propellant depots offer to commercial development of space as Jon describes so eloquently on his blog.

    The Flexible Path is an excellent strategy, although as formulated by the Augustine Commission it needs more work.

  24. Jon,

    Please do, and while you’re there can you ask him why the committee spent so long working out what NASA could do with a budget double the size of the budget they already weren’t getting?

    I can’t help but feel that if they had stuck to the original directive – investigate programs possible within the current budget profile – that they would have come up with something like your suggestion.

  25. Pingback: NASA Prepping Plans For Flexible Path To Mars | JetLib News

  26. How did we get here? Is this another case of an American administration setting lofty goals for NASA without really thinking through the cost of it? Or is it the case that NASA can’t manage their way out of a wet paper bag? I accept that space flight is really hard and I am a big space enthusiast who wants to see more of it and better missions; but shouldn’t some of this debate start with a bit of thinking about what went wrong before so that we can avoid the same mistakes in the future. Also, I’m genuinely interested to know what you guys think about this – you’re obviously very well-informed about the technology and programme options. – Matthew

  27. Brett Thomason says:

    Aremt you going to address the comment from that Mark fellow? How “Flexible Path” might translate really into going nowhere (esp regarding a summoning focal point in the public’s imagination & support for large, bold, world leading and inspiring exploratiom –which is a main, unwritten purpose of nasa– a function that comnmercial space is NOT ready for).

  28. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Personally I think the value of a goal like that is overrated. In spite of having had a “summoning focal point” for over half a decade, it’s not like NASA has actually gotten anywhere near the budget that they’ve needed to execute on a lunar mission. Ie, having a goal isn’t actually achieving what you think it achieves. More importantly, having a goal and timelines has been making NASA ignore doing the technology development it’s been putting off since Apollo, because they feel they have to take the lowest risk (but lowest payoff) approach in order to meet the deadline.

    Regarding your other point, sure, commercial space isn’t going to do much in the way of exploration–the point of Flexible Path is to get commercial space to pick up the “boring stuff”, so that NASA can actually focus on exploration. Right now the PoR would have NASA focusing on expensive earth-to-orbit transportation for most of the next decade and a half, and only start working on exploration stuff 15-20 years down the road (if the program didn’t get canceled outright).


  29. Really good article Jonathan. Although it was written before the presidents state of the union address, I think it speaks true even more right now as to the reasoning behind Obama’s planned 2011 budget.

    I was wondering if I could repost the article on our website (http://openae.org). Let me know at aleksey@openae.org . I think it would be really cool to put it side by side Michael Mealling’s article (http://rocketforge.org/?p=470) so I will ask him to.

  30. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    That would be fine. Just make sure you link back to here. I’ll take free advertising wherever I can get it. :-)


  31. Sorry it took me so long to publish it (I haven’t checked a lot of the site for a while). But here is a link of the posted article on our website…http://openae.org/business-news/65-news-why-not-fund-the-program-of-record .

    It will remain on our front page for a little while and then categorized under news on our website. Thanks for letting me publish it!

    There is also a couple more articles that with your permission I want to publish as well (all with the link back of course!)

    All the best,

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