If you want a good example of what’s wrong with the U.S. space program, take a good look at the Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing. In 2011, NASA estimated the cost of developing this human-rated, heavy-lift vehicle, along with the Orion crew capsule and launch facility upgrades, at $18 billion through 2017. The latest estimate by NASA pegs the development cost for SLS/Orion at between $19 billion and $22 billion through 2021. Almost everyone in the space industry understands that this is an extremely disingenuous low-ball estimate.
First of all, NASA fails to include the $4.7 billion it spent on Orion during 2005-2009 when it was part of the Constellation program, which was canceled in 2010. If you add in that money, the cost estimate for SLS/Orion could be nearly $27 billion. NASA also doesn’t take into account the reality that this program will inevitably face delays caused by technical issues, budgetary shortfalls and political opposition — all of which will quickly add to costs.
In fact, the delays have already begun in earnest. In August, the Obama administration announced that the initial launch of SLS/Orion will not occur in December 2017, as was initially planned, but rather November 2018 — a one-year delay already. Start keeping a close eye on those cost estimates, because they will inevitably keep rising. That’s simply what happens when development milestones start to slip in unusually complex NASA and U.S. Defense Department programs.
As cost overruns begin to mount, the next thing you’ll hear will be grumbling by budget-conscious members of Congress — some of whom will attempt to kill the program or at least dramatically reduce funding for it. This process will stretch out the development life of SLS/Orion — which in turn will make it even more expensive. Before you know it, that ol’ initial NASA estimate will seem piddling — kind of like the $9 billion to $12 billion cost estimate for the international space station by the administration of President Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s.
ISS ultimately cost more than $100 billion to build and assemble, and that program was not some strange anomaly. Think of the ballooning costs of major NASA and U.S. military programs as a kind of mission creep. Before you know it, you’re in the hole so deep that you can’t get out. But for some reason you just can’t stop digging.
The only thing we know for sure about the price tag for developing SLS/Orion is that it will be more than $30 billion — probably a lot more.
To make matters worse, with regard to SLS/Orion, is the painful fact that the rocket doesn’t actually have a mission. Yeah, there is that idea of lassoing an asteroid and hauling it down to the Moon where U.S. astronauts can examine it and bring back samples to Earth. But that mission still sounds like we’re grasping for straws. There is a fair amount of opposition to it within Congress and the space community. My favorite commentary on it (because I think it’s true) is by Richard Binzel, an asteroid expert and planetary science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who recently referred to the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a “one-and-done stunt.”
“A stunt kind of gets handed to you at the top, and there’s nothing underneath to support it,” Binzel said in August at a meeting of a NASA advisory panel known as the Small Bodies Assessment Group.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden this year told those who have doubts about ARM to, well, “get over it.” Gosh, how many times have I heard that from NASA administrators over the past quarter-century. Let me count the ways: in the last decade alone, X-33 VentureStar, Orbital Space Plane, Vision for Space Exploration and Constellation.
There is little consensus on SLS/Orion, and there’s even less for asteroid roping. If you’re going to spend the kind of money we’re talking about here, then the political and scientific support for the effort should be solid. And if it is not, then there should at least be a modicum of public excitement over it. Nope. Zilch. The SLS/Orion and ARM combo is about as far from President John F. Kennedy’s Apollo/Moon model for space exploration — which NASA and our political leaders continually wish to replicate, but fail — as one could ever imagine.
Marco Cáceres is senior space analyst with Teal Group Corp., a consultancy based in Virginia.