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…