I agree with Bob Zubrin that the numbers coming out of Aerospace on development costs are highly suspect:
Following retirement of the Shuttle, Aerospace’s cost estimates have ground operations cost triple to $900 million by 2012, and then continue to rise to $1.8 billion by 2022. This sixfold rise in ground operations cost would be difficult to explain in any case, but in the absurdity of this instance is outstanding since during the entire ten year 2012-2022 period in question, there are NO heavy lift flights at all for the ground operations to support. In other words, the Aerospace Corp’s estimates have NASA’s ground operations costs rising sixfold over Shuttle flight support requirements, spending $15 billion over ten years, in order to launch nothing.
Rather than basing their projections on actual grounded estimates of development costs for different types of hardware, what the Aerospace Corporation appears to have done is to regard each program element as an “activity” which each need to be funded continuously at multi-billion levels per year. The program is then arranged so that no flights beyond LEO can take place before around 2023. So, with a budget of about $3 billion per year (equivalent to 30,000 employees on payroll) the Ares 5 development program is allowed to run for 12 years, bringing development costs to the spectacular $36 billion level. Why, in this day an age, a launch vehicle development program needs to run 12 years (or require 30,000 people) is left unexplained. In contrast, the Saturn V development, done at a time when much more still needed to be learned about launch systems, took only 4 years to complete (Contract awarded in 1962, first flight in 1966.) Summing up all such activities the net result is a program which costs $14 to $20 billion per year (140,000 to 200,000 employees) and which does nothing at all for a decade.
I disagree with this, though:
Americans want and deserve a space program that is actually going somewhere. In order for that to happen, a radically different methodology to that being accepted by Augustine Committee needs to be employed. Rather, a real goal, worthy of spending serious money on, if necessary, needs to be selected. That goal can only be humans to Mars. Then a minimum cost, minimum complexity, and, critically, fastest schedule plan needs to be selected to achieve that goal. In order to minimize schedule and cost, such a plan should avoid advanced propulsion, on-orbit assembly, or other futuristic ideas, and instead get the job done in the manner of the Mars Direct and Semi-Direct missions by employing a strategy of direct transportation to Mars of required payloads using an upper stage mounted on the heavy lift launcher.
I don’t agree that the goal “can only be humans on Mars,” at least as the focus for the program, though it may be a useful long-term ultimate one, as the Augustine panel has stated. And the notion that on-orbit assembly is a “futuristic technology” is quite amusing, seeing that we’ve been doing it with ISS for over a decade.
[Update late afternoon]
There are a lot of good comments by “Red” over at Space Transport News. Also, I would add that while I consider the numbers suspect, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of Aerospace or its methodology so much as the NASA inputs and assumptions.