NASA, Other

The trillion-dollar Moon mission

You probably remember that, around the time the Vision for Space Exploration was first released, a number of media reports estimated the cost of the perceived ultimate goal of the effort—a manned Mars mission—at a trillion dollars. (See Dwayne Day’s “Whispers in the echo chamber” article in The Space Review in March 2004 for a discussion about this.) Since then, fortunately, those 13-digit price estimates have faded away, especially as the focus on the Vision has narrowed on a return to the Moon.

Or maybe not. The online publication Grist (“Environmental News & Commentary”) features a blog post this week that greatly inflates the cost of returning to the Moon. Andrew Dessler, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M, takes issue with the roughly $100 billion that NASA estimates it will take to return humans to the Moon. “There is no way that setting up a semipermanent lunar base will be anything other than many times more expensive. That would put the total cost at one to a few trillion dollars.” Prof. Dessler, though, doesn’t explain his rationale for why the effort will cost many (apparently at least ten times) more.

Dessler also argues that the current level of funding for exploration programs, a few billion dollars a year, is “something like 1 percent of the money they would need to spend each year to actually accomplish this task, well short of the $100 billion or so actually required. Given this reality, there is no way we will ever actually do this.” Of course, the level of funding devoted to the exploration program is supposed to increase once the station is completed and the shuttle is retired (but will fall far short of the “trillions” Dessler thinks are needed.) Remember the sand chart?

Prof. Dessler is concerned, as are some other scientists, that NASA’s focus on exploration is depriving science programs of critical funding: “As someone who gets much of his research funding from NASA, I have seen the dollars for climate research getting harder and harder to find over the last few years.” But surely there are better ways to argue that than through hyperbolic cost estimates…

27 comments to The trillion-dollar Moon mission

  • What Prof. Dessler fails to realize is that the $100 billion does not cover the cost of the lunar station. That price tag is the amount it will cost to land the first crew on the moon. That price includes R&D for the rocket, capsule, and LSAM. It includes building the thing, fuel, etc. $100 billion may be a very close estimate for the costs. Now, as far as the lunar station itself goes, that’s another story. I haven’t seen any estimates on that yet…

  • “As someone who gets much of his research funding from NASA, I have seen the dollars for climate research getting harder and harder to find over the last few years.”

    Climate research is neither Aeronautics nor Space, and should therefore be cut entirely out of NASA’s budget. Maybe the NOAA will fund him, maybe not. How do you like them apples, Prof. Dessler?

  • David Murtaugh

    “Climate research is neither Aeronautics nor Space, and should therefore be cut entirely out of NASA’s budget.”

    Well, actually it is. The proper term is “Earth Systems Science” and it has been funded by NASA for several decades now and in fact can be traced back in some form or other to the early years of the agency. NOAA performs “operational” duties that are expected to have a more near-term impact, like weather satellites.

    I think you’re trying to be rhetorical, but it’s an argument that doesn’t really convince anybody in Washington or in the scientific community. It’s like trying to argue that rockets should be under the authority of the Department of Transportation.

  • kert

    Well, if you take the numbers that NASA promised one STS flight will cost, and if you try to price out the actual cost of one STS flight over the life of the program, you get a certain multiplier.
    I think he just applied that multiplier to current promises, and conservatively, at that.

  • Mike Fazan

    “…the total cost at one to a few trillion dollars.”

    Finally, some semblance of reality. When all is said and done, this is probably fairly close to the mark. ISS from its inception (Phase A in the early 1980’s) to now has cost several 100 gigabucks.

    With the recently defined lunar architecture, we’re looking at something much more complex, with the additional need for new transportation infrastructure. Space Station did not have to carry costs for this.

    Doing what they want to on the Moon, we’re looking at something between 1,000 and 2,000 gigabucks. And that only gets us to the first stage of the current view of VSE. Going to Mars will require a comparable investment.

  • David,

    I know the history of it being there. I don’t agree that it should be there.

    Let me pose the question – what is Nasa’s purpose? Is it suppose to be just a science agency? An exploration agency (whatever the hell that is, since exploration isn’t just science), or a colonization agency?

    Only if its one of those things, should there really be any sort of focus on Earth observation.

    Mike, it didn’t/doesn’t have to cost as more, or, rather, more to the point, it could help pay for itself, if we did things differently. Unfortantly, we’ve got a crap plan, thanks to either Nasa as a whole, or Griffin and his guys. I admit I don’t know enought to know which, but ESAS is a horrible plan.

  • Bob

    Even the chief scientist for the two Mars rover missions has said — repeatedly — that as good as the Mars rovers are, they are not close to what a human geologist could accomplish in even a brief time on Mars. He wants to go to Mars to do his science first hand. The notion repeatedly advanced by scientists opposed to manned space exploration completely misses the point of exploration — certainly science is part of it, but only a part of it. Extending humanity’s reach into the solar system — and beyond — is the real objective. The tools we use — as good as they may be — are not the main event, the are just a side show.

    Regarding the technology the scientists like Dr. Dressler rely upon to develop their instruments and send them into space, you can be certain that the expenditures that led to their development would also have been fought by those very same scientists (or their ancestors) as a waste of money, useless expenditure, etc. It seems to be true with every step humanity takes forward — the struggle to advance the human race and extend our reach always seems to involve an inevitable conflict with those who cannot see beyond the status quo and who fear the future.

    Scientists like Dr. Stephen Hawking believe that the survival of the human race depends on our expansion out beyond Earth. Biologists will tell you that a species that does not spread beyond the narrow confines of the environment where it first originated will rapidly fall victim to extinction due to disaster or drastic environmental changes. The more we know about the history of Earth’s climate and environment, the more we realize that human civilization arose in a unique period of stability — a period that cannot last much longer even if global warming was not a looming theat. Human civilization arose only a few thousand years after the end of the last ice age that would have left most of the Northern Hemisphere — including virtually all of Europe, all of Canada and the northern half of the United States, Russia and the former Soviet Republics — uninhabitable for thousands of years. There have been titanic changes in Earth’s climate in the last 100,000 years — changes that would have had catastrophic effects on Human civilization. Expanding the reach of human civilization beyond Earth permits mankind to “hedge its bet” in the event catastrophe — natural or man made — should overtake us here on Earth.

    The expansion of humans into space — the Moon, Mars and beyond — will clearly benefit science in ways that people like Dr. Dressler will never be able to imagine. He and they will be left behind as an irrelevancy as step-by-step we become a space faring civilization. But, in the mean time, I think that people like Dr. Dressler should be permitted to continue their work without the ethical confusion of seeking funding from NASA or even using space born instruments. I wouldn’t want him to be associated with such an immoral undertaking. Let him do his work on the ground — head firmly planted in the sand — perhaps it will give him some time to reflect on the folly of his ways.

  • Chance

    “It’s like trying to argue that rockets should be under the authority of the Department of Transportation.”

    Rockets ARE under the authority of the Department of Transportation. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. From the website:
    The Office of Commercial Space Transportation:

    o Regulates the commercial space transportation industry, to ensure compliance with international obligations of the United States and to protect the public health and safety, safety of property, and national security and foreign policy interests of the United States;
    o Encourages, facilitates, and promotes commercial space launches and reentries by the private sector;
    o Recommends appropriate changes in Federal statutes, treaties, regulations, policies, plans, and procedures; and
    Facilitates the strengthening and expansion of the United States space transportation infrastructure.

  • David Murtaugh

    “(Phase A in the early 1980’s) to now has cost several 100 gigabucks.”

    No it hasn’t. As of the late 1990s the GAO estimated the total cost through end of life as approximately $100 billion. We have not even reached the $100 billion mark.

  • David Murtaugh

    “Rockets ARE under the authority of the Department of Transportation.”

    I meant that they should be funded by DoT. They’re not.

  • David Murtaugh

    “I know the history of it being there. I don’t agree that it should be there.”

    You need a better argument about why it should not be there other than “that is not NASA’s purpose according to my definition.”

    “Let me pose the question – what is Nasa’s purpose? Is it suppose to be just a science agency? An exploration agency (whatever the hell that is, since exploration isn’t just science), or a colonization agency?

    Only if its one of those things, should there really be any sort of focus on Earth observation.”

    It is both of those things and more. Why assume that it has _only_ one purpose? Nobody else does.

  • David,
    Saying nobody else has a single purpose, actually, I would argue that most federal agencies do actually have a single purpose, Nasa being one of the few exceptions. And thats the fundemental problem – a well run organization should have a purpose and reason, something Nasa fundementally doesn’t have at this point. It has a list of arguments for what it is/should be doing, and why its there – but it lacks a default reason ie primary goal. Its justification by committee (ie its a camel).

    If we had that, then it would be much easier to determine whether a particuar program belongs in Nasa. Thus, thats why I say that these satellites shouldn’t be done in Nasa.

  • kert

    ok. Lets take any NASA built and operated human spaceflight project. Can we get a good estimate on the factor that they normally lowball the costs ?
    What was the STS flight originally suppsed to cost and what does it actually cost ?
    What was the ISS originally promised to cost, and how much has it actually cost ?
    Hey, even Ares I numbers have already ballooned way beyond what the initial estimates are, and there wont be a flight for quite a few years for now.
    Work out these numbers, get the average “lowball factor” and apply it to current projected costs for the entire ESAS plan, and you can come up with a pretty good estimate on what its actually going to cost. A trillion may not be far off the mark.

  • Steve D

    If we could’ve spent the last 35 years taking advantage of the pace we were on in the sixties, we would probably have an outpost on the moon and would not be wasting our time arguing about this crap. Everybody understands that civilization being born in the last 8000 years or so was a lucky “accident.” The longer we piss and moan about budgets and who is responsible for what sciences simply wastes precious time we as a human race do not have to waste. For those out there that disagree – simply look up the picture Carl Sagan spent many years talking NASA into taking.
    “A Pale Blue Dot” pretty much sums it up….. how tiny and insignificant we really are.

  • Mike Fazan

    Spending trillions of dollars to establish human toeholds on our nearest one or two planetary neighbors is nonsense. Worse yet, these bodies are barren, desolate rocks, that only a scientist could love. Much better to invest in technology that will open up the true riches of space, far beyond the confines of this solar system.

    This requires investment in new revolutionary technology, not millions to sustain an army of engineers in endless PDRs, delta-PDRs and delta-delta-PDRs.

    For all of you non-NASA types, that’s exactly where we are now. One meaningless review after another.

  • Kevin M

    Good question – is Nasa a science, exploration or colonization agency? Honest answer – we go out there as much for political and social reasons as for science, hence the real mandate of Nasa as a science agency is somewhat a phony smokescreen. Meanwhile, we consistently overestimate the real value of what is out there for humans, and grossly underestimate the costs, both human and economic, the hostility of the environment, and the time it will really take. Working and living on the Moon or Mars will be a painful and thankless experience for anyone unlucky enough to be chosen. It’s like living in a submarine, you can only take it for limited tours of time, and the distance makes it simply impracticable. We live in an Icarus dream of pushing humans out there, when we are still perhaps centuries away from making it safe or sustainable.

    The current “humans to the moon and mars” challenge is merely politically (or militarily) motivated, or what is worse, a bald attempt at saving face in an era when we can barely sustain our standard of living on the ground. It can only result in a sad and sorry detour for Nasa, and will have to be greatly scaled back. The rate of return on a purely robotic science program is far higher than a grossly immature and overreaching human program can hope to produce. The “human outpost” program should remain the permanently secondary sideshow, or else we are in for many more high-tech disasters.

    China will never be a real technical threat to the West as their mechanics is still based more on imitation than invention. Their space program (along with their society) will suffer many more setbacks than our own, as their society still has very limited rational foundations. They may come to overpower us demographically or economically, but we will always be ahead of them intellectually. Our biggest weakness compared to China or Russia is that we still give a damn when we lose people and they don’t. We should not give up our core values for irrational paranoiac scenarios or cheap bragging points. It is alright if they overtake us, it is not alright if we sacrifice lives in order to beat other nations to reaching some lifeless, worthless rock. Most heavenly bodies will remain largely valueless and unattainable to us for a long time to come, and we simply do not have the resources to change that.

  • David Murtaugh

    “Saying nobody else has a single purpose, actually, I would argue that most federal agencies do actually have a single purpose, Nasa being one of the few exceptions.”

    After all, just look at the Commerce Department, which includes, er, NOAA, which not only conducts oceans science, but operates weather satellites…

    You’d lose on your statement. Most government agencies conduct multiple missions. And besides, there are very few people who would agree with your claim that space science and space exploration are so far removed that they belong in different agencies. When NASA was created, the political concensus as that these things are closely related. You have not made much of an argument that they are not, so an abstract desire for bureaucratic tidiness doesn’t hold up very well.

  • Mike, exactly what sort of data are you looking at? The planets and asteriods aren’t “desolate, barren rocks, only a scientist could love.” There are plenty of resources. Of course, we have to want to go get them, and of course, have a sane plan on how to do it (something ESAS isn’t). But colonization doesn’t have to wait until we have intersteller travel. Indeed, I’d argue we have alread started colonization.

  • Kevin M
    I don’t agree that it will necassarily be a painful and thankless job. It can and sometimes has seen that way, partly because of how Nasa has been run, but I will bet you that there are plenty of people who would go in a heartbeat. Further, its only like living in a submarine IF we assume it will have to be small, and the population must be limited. But why make that assumption? Yes, I know the current Nasa plan talks about a 6 person moonbase (or so). I was listening to a radio show about this, and wanted to call in and scream, and wanted to ask “Why aren’t we planning a 50 person moonbase? Or larger”

    Spaceflight and space colonization can be done at a cost-effective, and relatively safe manner, now. Not in centuries, but right here and now. Doing something like a 50-person moonbase, or cycler missions to Mars, won’t work with something like the current ESAS plan, but thats not the only game in town. If nasa were to really embrace off-planet plans, and the developments happening within the private sector, I gurantee you things woudl look a lot different (and there would be plenty of money for science). Groups like Armadillo, SpaceX, Masten, Bigelow, Xcor – that will vastly change how we view spaceflight, and space colonization.

    Further, I would argue, that if we want to sustain our standard of living, the only option is to utilize off-planet resources. Things like solar power, lunar mining, space manufacturing, and possibly even asteroid mining are very close.

    As far as trying to race the Chinease, or anyone else for that matter – frankly, that tends to push things into stupid directions, because it puts it at the whim of the politicain. Whats much better is when the society is immersed in it, and business and society can’t afford not to be involved in an activity (much like we saw with the development of the internet). That is why I’ve gotten excited about whats happening in the private spaceflight arena, and could care less about Orion, or Constellation, or CSTS, or Shenzhou – all of those follow the old model, of being super expensive, and requiring a state actor to want to continue flying. The sooner we realize that we don’t need “The entire backing of the government”, the better off we’ll be.

  • David –
    First, I don’t believe I ever said “space science and space exploration are so far removed that they belong in different agencies,” although I can see how you might think that. The problem is, while it is true that all science is exploration, not all exploration is science. Frankly, thats why I don’t like to ever use the word exploration – you’ll note my earlier comment,

    ” An exploration agency (whatever the hell that is, since exploration isn’t just science)”

    Exploration can take many forms, like artwork, business development, personal meditation. Science is just one aspect of exploration. Let me pose a suggestion – lets offer to fly an artist to the moon, to paint whatever he/she wants – the only requirement is that whatever is painted, it must be inspired by being on the moon. Well, I gurantee you that there would be many people complaining about how “it isn’t producing any scientific data.” Of course, its not suppose to – again, this is exploration, not just science. And its not suppose to – they are each doing different things, each of which is important to the human existance. Thats why, as I said, I don’t like the term exploration – anyone can appropriate it, for any damn thing, and it can end up meaning nothing, and nothing happens. Perhaps if scientists would agree that not all exploration is science, then I might not have so much of an issue with using exploration, but I doubt it.

    Which brings me to my next point, regarding Nasa’s mission – you’ve completely ignored the point about Nasa being an agency devoted to colonization. Colonization has much more clearly defined parameters, some of which will conflict with running science missions. That being the case, that would push them into another department, IMHO.

  • Mike Fazan

    Exploration without science is BS. Science is the bellweather of technology and new products. And right now, that is the only reasonable thing that space has to offer.

  • Mike Fazan,

    Based on what, is exploration without science BS? If we look at it from a strictly definition based system, science appears no where in the definition of exploration. You try and make that claim at an artist guild meeting, I gurantee you will get run out. Exploration is only about learning something new – science is a part of exploration, but its not the end all.

    As for science being the bellweather of technology and new products – of course it is – I don’t claim otherwise. But that doesn’t discount other areas of exploration.

    Finally, there are various things not related to science of which space is being used for – GPS, communication satellites, and so forth. Give it a few more years, and we’ll be seeing the rise of serious off-planet tourism (and we’ve already started seeing that as well). And within a decade or two, we’ll see large scale development happen.

  • kert

    one thing that “space is for science only” crowd doesnt seem to get, is if there is large scale development of space, there will be FAR more opportunities for science, than todays one-off, “wait seven years to get some results if you are lucky” unmanned probe shots.

  • Ray

    Dessler article: “As someone who gets much of his research funding from NASA, I have seen the dollars for climate research getting harder and harder to find over the last few years.”

    Ed: “Climate research is neither Aeronautics nor Space, and should therefore be cut entirely out of NASA’s budget. Maybe the NOAA will fund him, maybe not.”

    Climate research is often (usually?) done using satellite data (mixed with in-situ data, which has its own advantages including going back before satellites were built). As such it’s clearly within NASA’s responsibilities. NOAA is responsible for operational ocean and atmosphere work. I’m sure there’s an overlap.

    I’m not sure what you’re proposing here. Take NASA’s Earth observation mission out of NASA with the associated funds, and give it to NOAA? How is that going to help NASA? It will remove one of the NASA areas that the general public can easily see is directed to Earth-based problems and benefits (which, not being generally space-obsessed, is what they naturally tend to want), leaving the rest of NASA that much more vulnerable. It will take away NASA funding. It will give NASA a huge management problem to accomplish the transition. It will separate NASA’s science programs to other planets that do work that’s relevant to studying Earth in a comparative sense. The satellites, instruments, ground systems, and launch vehicles associated with those planetary missions also have commonalities with the Earth observation satellites, and it will be more difficult to take advantage of those commonalities if the EO area is separated from NASA.

    Or, are you suggesting separating the EO NASA area without giving the corresponding funds to NOAA? There’s no way NOAA would be able to take on the mission with the funding they have, so it would be dropped. NOAA is having a lot of problems with what’s on their plate already (eg: part of NPOESS). Causing Earth observation research to be dropped would be really bad prioritization, and politically unwise as well (eg: consider Maryland in Congress). Meanwhile, what would happen at NASA with the budget windfall? Let me guess … we could pump it into the government space launch and transportation business, where it would vanish without a trace.

    Before doing this, I’d suggest removing the NASA large rocket development and human transportation operations areas from NASA. This would be good whether or not the budget followed. If the budget stayed in NASA after the transition period, a lot of good science missions, commercial launch purchases, and space infrastructure technology development could be done. If the budget followed the new organization, at least the rest of NASA would be shielded from raids by the “800 pound gorilla”.


    There was some discussion at the beginning of this thread about whether Earth science belongs at NASA. Without offering an opinion one way or the other, I’d just point out that the legislation that created NASA and that still governs its purpose (the “National Aeronautics and Space Act”) explicitely calls on NASA to carry out:

    “The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space”

    See Section 102(d)(1) at this link:

    We may agree or disagree about the place of Earth science in NASA’s portfolio, but we first have to deal with the reality that it has been legally enshrined as one of NASA purposes since NASA’s creation.

    The flip side of that is that Nasa has an obligation concerning colonization that they’ve never full-filled(I believe that they are required by law to produce a report about progress towards colonization every 2 years – they have yet to produce their first).

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