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« The Storms Just Keep On Coming | Main | "Effective" And "Successful"? »

Mission Costs

This article describes why NASA's plans are probably fiscally and politically unsustainable, though you have to read between the lines:

NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle is expected to cost $5.5 billion to develop, according to government and industry sources, and the Crew Launch Vehicle another $4.5 billion. The heavy-lift launcher, which would be capable of lofting 125 metric tons of payload, is expected to cost more than $5 billion but less than $10 billion to develop, according to these sources.

NASA’s plan also calls for using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, equipped with as many as six seats, to transport astronauts to and from the international space station. An unmanned version of the Crew Exploration Vehicle could be used to deliver a limited amount of cargo to the space station.

NASA would like to field the Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2011, or within a year of when it plans to fly the space shuttle for the last time. Development of the heavy lift launcher, lunar lander and Earth departure stage would begin in 2011. By that time, according to NASA’s charts, the space agency would expect to be spending $7 billion a year on its exploration efforts, a figure projected to grow to more than $15 billion a year by 2018, that date NASA has targeted for its first human lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Note that all of the discussion is about development and operational costs per year. But let's do the math. Even ignoring the amortization of the development costs, consider fifteen billion a year. How many missions will they get for that amount of money? Let's be generous, and assume that it's four. That means that each mission would cost three or four billion dollars.

Hey, forget about the lunar missions--let's just look at the CEV itself. I've seen estimates of annual operating costs for the system of three billion (and it's not clear whether those are fixed costs, or total). If they're only fixed costs, and it flies six times a year (say, in support of ISS), that comes out to half a billion dollars per flight. If we have to add in the expended hardware costs of the Satay (my name for "the Stick") it's even more. This for something that only delivers crew to the station and returns them--no cargo capability. In other words, we're going to be spending as much on a LEO crew mission with the new architecture as we are currently on an entire Shuttle flight, including payload delivery and return.

Sorry, but this is nuts. I can't see how the public will accept this, once someone explains it to them, particularly in an era in which there may be private human spaceflight for orders of magnitude less. I certainly don't find it acceptable. The federal establishment has apparently simply given up on the notion of making space affordable. Thus, NASA will make itself increasingly irrelevant as the years go on.

Posted by Rand Simberg at September 19, 2005 08:38 AM
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Tracked: September 19, 2005 05:17 PM

"I can't see how the public will accept this, once someone explains it to them, particularly in an era in which there may be private human spaceflight for orders of magnitude less."

May be, Rand. May be privatization cost savings. I agree with your expectation of the costs going down, and with your reasons. But the public *may be* willing to absorb the costs to get going NOW, as opposed to going at some unspecified date.

Not everyone is as versed as you are re: the economies of space flight, and consider it an oxymoron at best. Most supporters of NASA don't much care, either.

Posted by J. Craig at September 19, 2005 10:32 AM

I just hope that a Hooters Girl will meet the NASA guys at the airlock with drinks when they finally show up on the moon in 2018.

Posted by Ryan at September 19, 2005 10:53 AM

Rand, the dollar amounts here are staggering, which leads my ignorant mind to a few questions. Does it really (really really) cost this much? What percentages are going to the bureaucracy. Perhaps more importantly, what percentages are going to unreasonable safety measures (i.e. those safety measures any reasonable explorer would consider superfluous)?

In other words, for the same results, what SHOULD Apollo: The Sequel cost?

Posted by Steve Russell at September 19, 2005 03:19 PM

There's a lot of problems with working out what things "should" cost, not least of which as soon as things get suitablyu large and complex you start to end up with ever expanding layers of management. Not all of it is necessarily superfluous, but people like traceable on things.

Even at book prices you could do a lot of this for a fraction using outsourced engineering design services and Russian fabrication plant. It would still have a lot of the problems of being throw away but you could do it cheaper. Of course, that would entirely undermine the point of what NASA seems to be for.

Posted by Dave at September 19, 2005 03:44 PM

This boondoggle is said to cost $105 billion over its lifetime. That's about $1,000 PER HOUSEHOLD. Could I please opt out and get a 30" direct view HDTV set instead? You can keep the change.

Thank you.

Posted by Tom Wrona at September 20, 2005 06:45 PM

What a waste of money nasa should just buy a crew module from the private cooperations such as t/space ,andrews space ,spacedev or even the russians.
Also I heard spacex is planning a fully reusable medium heavy launcher this could be changed into a manned craft.
The total cost for the CXV and it's quickreach II launch vehical would be 600 million to develope.
The real kicker is it'll have a lower per mission cost then even soyuz.
The russians klipper will cost less then 3 billion to bring into service.
Also why redux apollo yes it got us to the moon but it was a dog it had no airlock ,a danerous pure O2 atmosphere not even a proper bathroom and it's mission safetly record was even worse then the shuttle.
If your want to use a tried and tested design copy soyuz but I'd rather see some advancement vs anything retro.
If they go with the CXV or the orbital version of dream chaser they would save 8 to 9.4 billion on the crew launch part of the program.
That 8 to 9 billion could fund other projects such as the cut back eath monitoring programs or the advance propulsion research so they can finsh the research on scramjets and maybe we'll get a real replacemnt for the shuttle.
Heck with so much left over cash they could bring back SLI and the deltaclipper program.

Posted by Stewie at September 22, 2005 02:45 AM

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