Congress, NASA

CBO costs out various NASA budget options

The Congressional Budget Office this week released a report analyzing various budget scenarios for carrying out the Vision for Space Exploration. This report was prepared as directed by the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (section 410), which required the CBO to update its 2004 analysis of the projected costs of implementing the VSE.

The CBO report takes as a baseline NASA’s current plans, which project an average annual MASA budget of $19.1 billion between 2010 and 2025. This baseline includes retiring the shuttle next September, putting Ares 1 and Orion into service in March 2015, ending support for the ISS in December 2015, and landing humans on the Moon in 2020. It also calls for 79 science missions to take place through 2025. The CBO report then looks at four alternative scenarios:

Schedule Slips: Using estimates of historic cost growth in NASA programs, the first scenario kept funding fixed and allowed schedules to slip as a result. The shuttle is still retired in September 2010 and ISS work terminated by 2016, but in this case Ares 1 and Orion slip to late 2016 and the human return to the Moon is delayed to 2023. The number of science missions performed in the period also goes down, to 64.

Paying to Keep on Schedule and Close the Gap: A second scenario examined what it would take to keep Ares 1/Orion and the human return to the Moon on schedule, as well as address concerns about the Shuttle-Constellation gap by keeping the shuttle flying until 2015 and maintain ISS operations through 2020. It would also maintain the full suite of planned science missions. In this case NASA’s average annual budget increases to $23.8 billion, almost a 25% increase. Moreover, much of that additional spending is in the near term: the report projects an average annual budget of $23 billion in 2010-2013, compared to $18.2 billion for the same period in the baseline.

Paying for Constellation Only: A third scenario looked at keeping Ares 1/Orion and the human return to the Moon on schedule, but maintaining plans to retire the shuttle and station and allowing science missions to slip as in the first scenario. In that case the average annual NASA budget increases to $21.1 billion in 2010-2025, a 10% increase.

Using Science to Pay for Constellation: The fourth and final option considered by the CBO is to keep Constellation on schedule, but instead of providing additional overall funding for NASA taking the money from science and aeronautics programs. In that scenario the number of science missions performed in the 2010-2025 period drops by nearly half, to 44.

18 comments to CBO costs out various NASA budget options

  • red

    “The Congressional Budget Office this week released a report analyzing various budget scenarios for carrying out the Vision for Space Exploration.”

    Well, if you consider that the goal of the Vision for Space Exploration was contributions to science, security, and economics in the context of strong commercial and international participations, none of these options will carry that out. They all involve Constellation/Ares, which is more or less the opposite of those goals. One aspect of this opposition is that the options that don’t postpone Constellation involve reducing science and aeronautics missions that actually do contribute to science, security, and economics (eg: using similar launchers and satellites to those used by defense and intelligence agencies).

    Do the CBO figures take into account the cost of a COTS-D effort? What about the cost of maintaining ISS with Ares/Orion if commercial crew options don’t show up?

    p 17: “According to NASA’s current plans for the Constellation program, the agency would require $92 billion in funding to return humans to the moon in 2020. If 50 percent cost growth occurred, that figure would rise to $110 billion.”

    How does CBO arrive at that kind of math? Is there “buffer funding” hidden in there?

    With Science and Aeronautics already having taken huge reductions due to Shuttle and Constellation in recent years, and Obama’s push for Earth observations, fuel-efficient planes, NASA education, etc, I doubt that the science/aeronautics cut scenarios will happen. With such huge Federal debt/deficits and many agencies enjoying tons of money and sure to want to keep it that way, I doubt NASA will get the big budget boost scenario, either.

    Basically, the numbers don’t work without major commercial participation, and getting control of out-of-control NASA areas like Constellation, Shuttle, and some larger science mission plans.

  • Jim Muncy


    Your analysis above is 100% on point. Maybe you should apply to be NASA Administrator.

    – Jim

  • Such scenario analysis can go even further. Such as to see the consequences to future science, post Constellation space developmental capabilities, or post Constellation outpost plans. The suggested link:

    …may be informative in this regard.

    Additionally consider the federal budget posture via reports such as the citizens guide to the federal budget at:

    …by GAO, noting especially the growth in the federal debt (interest) and programs such as Medicare.

    Strategic agency decisions are required.

  • […] Space Politics, there is a new CBO Report (PDF link) that games out several other options for Constellation / […]

  • Major Tom

    I found CBO’s comparison of Constellation to Apollo and other human lunar return program costs on page 16 to be even more telling than the budget scenarios. That graph makes several important points:

    1) NASA’s own cost estimates for Constellation have grown from $57 billion in 2004 to $92 billion today. That’s more than 60% cost growth in under five years.

    2) At $92 billion, Constellation is approaching Apollo costs of $110 billion, and CBO believes that Constellation will actually end up costing $110 billion based on historical cost growth in NASA programs. Despite decades of industy and technology development, Constellation won’t get back to the Moon in a way that’s more affordable and budgetarily sustainable than the 40-year old Apollo program.

    3) At $92 billion, NASA’s cost estimate for Constellation is greater than NASA’s cost estimate of $83 billion for the equivalent human lunar return content from the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which itself was criticized and cancelled for being unaffordable and unsustainable.

    4) Simple lunar architectures that actually leverage prior systems (FLO) and lunar oxygen (LUNOX) offer a lot of hope over programs with multiple, big, new system developments, like Constellation, Apollo, and SEI, cutting costs in half.


  • Dennis Wingo

    This report is why I stated in an article to the Huntsville Times in 2005 that any ESAS type heavy lift system is simply unsustainable within the politics of the day.

    We can put together an architecture using the ISS as the transportation hub and ISRU and ISFP (In Situ Food Production) as key technological innovations to reduce cost and increase the value of the exploration effort. Some inside of NASA are at least amenable to thinking about ISRU and they should be supported (previous administrator occupant not included).

  • vulture4

    Once the whole mission of NASA/NACA was to produce science and technology of practical value to America. With its help our civil aerospace industry led the world.

    I know people at a NASA center that could use NASA science and technology to understand and protect the environment, and find the cure for a devastating disease. Other NASA centers can support American industry in developing a hydrogen-fueled airliner so our airlines won’t be bankrupted by fuel costs, and helping our air traffic control become safer and our airports become far more efficient, so we don’t spend more time in the airport than in the air. And only a decade ago we were still talking about “enabling technologies” that would make human spaceflight practical by actually reducing its cost with fully reusable launch vehicles, developed incrementally, not as a crash program to simply put boots on the moon. And now that we have ISS, we need to show that we can make it productive, not throw it away because we’re “bored with LEO”.

    NASA needs to return to its original mission; not the one it abandoned when the moon race ended, but the one it abandoned when the moon race began.

  • Sheridan

    Since when was NASA’s budget increased to $19.1 billion?

    How much worse are all these predictions when assuming the current (FY2008) flat budget of $17.6bn?

  • When you consider that NASA’s budget has been flat for nearly over 20 years with funding levels barely exceeding that of the Apollo program of the 1960’s, one has to wonder that NASA has been able to do as much as they have. My question is when is Congress going to get serious about giving NASA the money it needs to develop better programs? Good and strong programs begin with high levels of funding up front so that the planning and development can iron out as many technical problems early in the process rather than later in the testing phase when redesigns and problems can drive costs overruns. Some people have gone and misinterpreted the CBO report in numerous ways as a means of attacking NASA which at the very least is disengenuous. The VSE directs NASA to develop a new lunar mission program but funds NASA at levels that in terms of 1966 dollars, the peak of NASA funding, at less than half the funding of the Apollo program. Some have complained NASA now needs another $30 billion dollars for VSE yet they routinely ignore that the money would be funded in increments over the next ten years and not all at once. Even then, that increase would not restore NASA to the funding levels of the Apollo program. The ESAS/Constellation program is too far along to stop now and has been proceeding smoothly with occasional problems. To try to change course now would only lengthen US human spaceflight gap to more than a decade.

  • Kevin Parkin

    When I hear these budget numbers and expectations, I get a good idea of the price the government and people are willing to bear for various signs of progress, the scale of overruns they are willing to tolerate, how hard they would like it to appear, and the total amount of progress people are ready to receive in the coming fiscal and political period. It’s sort of like a market report.

  • Richard

    I am so afraid that NASA will be forced to cut back on these critical space programs. I’m 20 years old. I always assumed I would see the beginning of moon colonization and possibly Mars too.

    I wish the budget would be added to but with the economy.. sigh. IF ONLY we had a president worth his or her grain of salt in office. Instead of putting faulty money in a faulty bill.

    We need a Reagan just for the amazing support of the space program he devoted.

  • I am so afraid that NASA will be forced to cut back on these critical space programs.

    Constellation in its current form is not only not critical, but actually monumentally counterproductive. Pouring more public funding into it would be bad for both the taxpayers and space enthusiasts. It would benefit only those actually working on the project.

    I’m 20 years old. I always assumed I would see the beginning of moon colonization and possibly Mars too.

    So did I, when I was twenty. In the intervening decades, it’s become obvious that NASA is not going to do those things, and that continued efforts to give them money to attempt to do so only delay the day that they will actually happen.

  • Kevin Parkin

    When I was a teenager I used to download cool space pictures from and read the newsgroups. It was around the time of DC-X, Magellan and Clementine.

    Back then I too felt like Richard, and I would read these odd usenet posts from people who thought that NASA should be shut down. I wondered how anyone could arrive at such a conclusion and thought to myself that I would never let myself become that cynical.

    Well, here I am, nearly 20 years later! Like Rand, I still love space, but for many reasons I’ve bored people with in other threads am looking beyond NASA.

  • Major Tom

    The NASA-commissioned Aerospace Corp. study on EELV alternatives is finally seeing some light and it offers one viable solution to the NASA budget dilemma presented by CBO. Aerospace puts the total cost of developing an EELV launcher for Orion at $1.50 billion (for Delta IV) to $1.55 billion (for Atlas V). That includes a new launch pad, mobile launcher, assembly building, human-rating changes, and finishing the existing Atlas V heavy upgrade. See:

    According to NASA’s FY 2009 budget request to Congress, the agency is planning to spend $6.5 billion on Ares I development in FY 2010-2013. So terminating Ares I and developing an EELV alternative for Orion will save NASA and the taxpayer $5 billion through FY 2013 alone. Heck, NASA could develop both EELV alternatives for Orion and still save $3.5 billion.

    Of course, Ares I development doesn’t officially end until at least FY 2015, and with zero confidence of meeting that date, Ares I development likely won’t end until FY 2016-17 at the earliest. So the cost savings from terminating Ares I and developing one or two EELV alternatives for Orion will probably be another $3.5 -5 billion. Call it $7-10 billion total.

    A total of $7-10 billion would cover most of the $1 billion annual difference between the $18+ billion annual budget projection for NASA in the Obama White House’s FY 2010 budget and the $19+ billion estimated annual budget need for NASA in the CBO report.

    The savings are likely to be even higher than that. The Aerospace Corp. study found 5.0 tons (Delta IV) to 6.2 tons (Atlas V) of margin for Orion when launching to ISS (and similar margins for the lunar case). This would be a huge improvement over the small to negative margins Orion suffers on Ares I, greatly simplifying Orion’s development and avoiding the costs associated with closing the Orion design on Ares I. Aerospace also puts the EELV/Orion readiness date at 2014, avoiding one to several years of Soyuz payments given the Ares I/Orion IOC of 2015-17.

    So an independently verified and much better path forward now exists for the civil human space flight space program. Whether the White House nominates an Administrator who will make the tough decisions to change NASA’s path and how much more pain the civil space program has to go through before Congress will stomach the necessary workforce dislocations is another question. But the prerequisite to making those tough decisions now exists.



    Major Tom,

    I agree with your analysis. The facts of your analysis are hard to refute.

    I expect that the White House, including but not limited to OMB, will use the same numbers and come to similar conclusions.

    The writing is on the wall for all to see.



  • Tom D

    I think it likely that some sort of shuttle-derived vehicle will still be kept to keep as many people employed as possible; however, that will likely just be for cargo. Hopefully, a scaled back version of Ares V that looks like the Jupiter 131. I hope Ares I is killed as soon as possible, but it looks like NASA is paralyzed until a new administrator is selected and approved. That will likely be quite a battle. I don’t expect to see that until the Administration has gotten as far as they can with their health care reform initiative.

  • Aries I is a mess, its underpowered and I don’t think we’ve even started to see the cost overruns yet. Come on from runway landings to ocean splashdowns maybe we should call this thing gemini. Use cheap launchers to launch orion and go straight into development of Aries V or an Aries IV variant. Better yet drop everything and go back to the drawing board. Maybe shuttle C.

    Getting rid of the shuttle now is a bad mistake, once again like apollo and skylab we develop tech and through it away.

    The argument was that the US doesn’t need the shuttle because it won’t be doing anymore leo construction the program was meant for. I never believed that and now with maybe the slight chance of a LEO solar power satellite program, we do. Its dead without a vehicle that can do the construction.

    But once again we are going to just dump it all and let the rest of the world surpise us, same thing happened in small electronics and in physics.

  • Major Tom

    “Aries I is a mess, its underpowered and I don’t think we’ve even started to see the cost overruns yet.”

    It’s underpowered, overrunning, and a programmatic mess, but it’s called “Ares”, not “Aries”.

    “Getting rid of the shuttle now is a bad mistake, once again like apollo and skylab we develop tech and through it away.”

    They’re nothing alike. Shuttle “tech” was developed 30-40 years ago, while the lifetime of the Apollo and Skylab programs is measured in single to low double digit years. Unlike Apollo and Skylab, Shuttle is being retired old, not young.

    “The argument was that the US doesn’t need the shuttle because it won’t be doing anymore leo construction the program was meant for. I never believed that and now with maybe the slight chance of a LEO solar power satellite program, we do. Its dead without a vehicle that can do the construction.”

    Today’s most competitive SPS concepts don’t require human in-space assembly. They rely on robotics or skip in-space assembly altogether. For example, see:


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