With the nation’s attention focused on the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast, NASA unveiled with minimal fanfare a $104 billion plan for landing four astronauts on the Moon by 2018.

Although the plan was set in motion by the White House more than a year ago with a landmark address by U.S. President George W. Bush, the timing of NASA’s unveiling only highlighted the considerable political challenges the U.S. space agency faces as it sets out to implement an exploration plan of comparatively moderate technical complexity.

Congressional conservatives quickly seized on the Moon plan as a prime example of wasteful government spending that could be cut to help finance a Gulf Coast reconstruction effort expected to top $200 billion.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, presenting the agency’s Apollo-inspired exploration plan to reporters here Sept. 19, dismissed suggestions that the United States could ill afford a reinvigorated human space exploration program in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“[T]he space program is a long-term investment in our future. We must deal with our short-term problems while not sacrificing our long-term investments in our future,” Griffin said in response to a reporter’s question. “When we have a hurricane, we don’t cancel the Air Force, we don’t cancel the Navy and we’re not going to cancel NASA.”

Griffin also made the case that space exploration spending would provide a timely economic stimulus for the hard-hit Gulf region, which is home to several key NASA human space flight facilities.

“When we talk about two or three hundred billion of aid to the Gulf Coast I would point out that one of the primary constituents of any aid to a devastated region in the wake of any sort of disaster, one of the primary constituents is real jobs,” he said.

Between Louisiana’s Michoud Assembly Facility, Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center and Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Griffin said, “NASA has thousands and thousands of real jobs, not WPA [Works Progress Administration] work, not reconstruction work, but strategically important work that has been done in that region for decades.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a staunch NASA supporter whose Houston congressional district is home to thousands of Johnson Space Center employees, also dismissed suggestions — this time from fellow conservatives who proposed killing the newly unveiled Moon plan to achieve $44 billion in savings over 10 years ‑‑ that NASA should bear the brunt of hurricane-related budget offsets.

“NASA is an incredibly effective and valuable program that is achieving its goals,” DeLay spokesman Ben Porritt told Space News. “[I]n achieving its goals, it will keep America at the forefront of the next generation of space exploration. The American people expect Congress to practice fiscal restraint and responsibility by addressing programs that have proven to be ineffective and a product of wasteful spending. Those are the programs we need to be targeting.”

John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, called the release of NASA’s long-awaited exploration plan in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane “an unfortunate coincidence of history,” but said it should not derail a widely supported effort to sharpen the U.S. space program’s exploration focus.

“It makes little sense to abort the exploration plan now just because of a current crisis,” Logsdon said. “What is needed is a debate on the plan’s intrinsic merits. That debate was taking place before Katrina, with a strong majority in Congress in favor. If a problem, albeit a major one, can reverse that sentiment in a month, clearly there is insufficient political will to create sustained support for moving ahead in space. I certainly hope that is not the case.”

The Cost of Exploration

Griffin said the United States could build by 2018 the spacecraft and launchers needed to begin a sustained lunar exploration campaign without giving NASA more than rate-of-inflation budget increases, at least for the next four or five years.

“The architecture absolutely fits within the funding guidelines that the administration has provided,” Griffin said, noting that NASA intends to spend $104 billion on the exploration plan over the next 13 years, or about half of what it spent over just eight years to accomplish the first Apollo Moon landing.

Griffin did not give reporters a detailed year-by-year or project-by-project breakdown of the exploration budget. However, budget charts used to brief the White House Office of Management and Budget and other government officials in advance of the public rollout show that NASA’s near-term exploration funding needs are the most significant in 2008, 2009 and 2010. For those years, NASA’s needs are projected to exceed available funding by some $2 billion.

Griffin did not directly address the funding mismatch, but repeatedly emphasized that NASA would live within any funding constraints by pushing out exploration milestones, not gutting its science or aeronautics programs.

“All of our goals will have to be funding-driven,” Griffin said. “The dates will be adjusted to match the funding which is made available.”

The plan NASA unveiled Sept. 19 calls for fielding a reusable Crew Exploration Vehicle and a new expendable rocket based on the space shuttle solid rocket booster by 2012 — two years earlier than the deadline Bush set last year, but later than the 2011 target Griffin had embraced since taking over NASA this past spring.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle, the 5.5-meter reusable capsule and expendable service module NASA intends to fly up to six times a year to the international space station and twice a year to the Moon, is expected to cost $5.5 billion to design and develop, according to internal NASA estimates. The Crew Launch Vehicle — essentially a four-segment solid rocket booster with a new upper stage powered by a modified space shuttle main engine — is expected to cost $3.2 billion to design and develop.

A thorough test and evaluation program consisting of three flight demonstrations, these internal estimates also show, is expected to add an additional $2 billion to $3 billion to the effort by the time NASA conducts its first crewed flight in 2012.

Starting in 2011, under NASA’s plan, development would begin on a heavy-lift rocket capable of launching 125 metric tons of Moon-bound cargo into low Earth orbit. Cost e stimates for that rocket, which will take advantage of the shuttle’s main engines and external tank, exceed $5 billion. The Earth departure stage, lunar landers and other hardware NASA needs to make its first lunar landing in 2018, require billions of dollars more.

At the same time that NASA is building all this hardware, it still expects to be operating the international space station using some combination of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, U.S. commercial services or foreign vehicles to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the orbital outpost.

According to NASA’s internal estimates, the agency would have to spend around $2.8 billion a year between 2012 and 2016 supporting the space station if it relies exclusively on the Crew Exploration Vehicle to conduct the two crew rotation flights and four resupply missions required annually. Going to the Moon twice a year, as called for under NASA’s plan, is expected to cost $6 billion annually, according to these same estimates.

When NASA briefed the White House Office of Management and Budget a few weeks ahead of the public unveiling of the exploration plan, NASA’s exploration funding needs through 2025 — when a robotic lunar exploration program and research and technology efforts were factored in — were projected to exceed the agency’s long-term spending guidelines by $18 billion.

The $104 billion price tag Griffin gave reporters Sept. 19 for returning to the Moon by 2018 does not appear to include the robotic missions or the research and technology spending, according to unreleased NASA charts that show those two efforts would add between $1 billion and $2 billion a year to the tab.

The Broader Budget Picture

NASA’s budgetary needs go w ell beyond the exploration program. The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s marquee observatory slated to launch early in the next decade, is at least $1 billion over budget. But that problem pales in comparison to the budgetary challenges NASA faces on the space shuttle program.

NASA intends to keep flying the space shuttle until 2010 in order to finish building as much of the international space station as it can by then. NASA has yet to release a revised space station assembly plan it has been working on since spring, but Griffin has been saying publicly that the agency will shoot for as many as 20 space shuttle flights before retiring the orbiter, including one flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Washington sources familiar with NASA’s budget plans said the space shuttle program will need a steady $4 billion to $5 billion a year through 2010. NASA’s latest publicly released five-year budget plan, however, assumed that shuttle spending would steadily decline, dropping to $2.4 billion in the program’s final year. Between the space shuttle program’s budget shortfall, the Webb telescope’s overrun and the exploration program’s need for spacecraft development dollars, these Washington sources said, NASA needs an extra $5 billion or more over the next five years if it wants to keep its exploration agenda on track.

Aware of the budgetary mismatch, the White House Office of Management and Budget asked NASA in early September to provide an estimate of the costs the space agency would incur if it were to shut down the shuttle program in 2006. NASA complied in short order, providing an estimate showing that retiring the shuttle orbiter fleet four years early would produce only token savings.

NASA spokesman Dean Acosta declined Sept. 22 to discuss the agency’s budget deliberations with the White House other than to say NASA is “working to determine the fiscal needs of the shuttle program given our plan to fly a greatly reduced number of space shuttle flights through the run-out of 2010 and using these flights to concentrate on [space station] assembly only, aside from one additional Hubble servicing mission, if feasible.”

NASA’s budget conundrum is not lost on Congress.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) praised NASA’s exploration architecture for its emphasis on safety and use of existing launch infrastructure to reduce costs, but questioned the plan’s affordability given NASA and the nation’s other budget priorities.

“The question Congress and the administration will still have to grapple with most is not the nature or desirability of the exploration architecture, but rather its timing,” Boehlert said in a statement. “Given the funding shortfalls in the space shuttle program, there is simply no credible way to accelerate the development of a Crew Exploration Vehicle unless the NASA budget increases more than has been anticipated. Whether such an increase is a good idea in the context of overall federal spending at this time is something neither Congress nor the administration has yet determined.”

A congressional source who follows NASA said that without a substantial budget increase, NASA has three options at its disposal: “You can delay parts of the exploration plan, such as go back to 2014 for the CEV; you can take money out of science programs; or you can cut back or terminate shuttle and station,” the source said. “Each one of those comes with its own set of problems.”

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...