As expected, the White House has ordered an independent review of Constellation to be chaired by Norm Augustine and be completed by August. That exploration architecture is at the heart of Mike Griffin’s legacy at NASA administrator. So it was interesting that someone reminded me that both Augustine and Griffin were witnesses at the same hearing of the House Science Committee back in March 2004, when the committee was taking an initial look at the Vision for Space Exploration announced two months earlier. Augustine appeared in his role as former chairman of the “Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program” (aka the Augustine Commission) in 1990, while Griffin spoke as president of In-Q-Tel and incoming head of the Space Department at APL (the hearing took place almost exactly one year before Griffin was nominated to become NASA administrator).
Given that one of the major criticisms of Constellation has been its cost (in addition to technical and schedule issues, which also affect its cost), it was interesting to see some of their comments in the prepared testimony. Augustine had this to say about spending:
[I]t would be a grave mistake to try to pursue a space program “on the cheap”. To do so is in my opinion an invitation to disaster. There is a tendency in any “can-do” organization to believe that it can operate with almost any budget that is made available. The fact is that trying to do so is a mistake—particularly when safety is a major consideration. I am not arguing for profligacy; rather, I am simply pointing out that space activity is expensive and that it is difficult. One might even say that it is rocket science!
Griffin, meanwhile, addressed costs in greater detail in his remarks, suggesting that the initial estimates of the cost of developing the infrastructure needed to return to the Moon might, if anything, be “somewhat high”. He adds:
Additional perspective can be gained by noting that the cost of the entire Apollo program was about $130 B in today’s dollars. This included massive technology and infrastructure development, as well as the operational cost of eleven manned missions, including six lunar landings. It does not seem reasonable that 40% or more of this figure should be required to execute a single mission of a similar class today.
For advocates of spaceflight, including myself, more money is always better, and is certainly preferable to less money! But I would submit that our first order of business is to examine our culture, the aerospace culture, and ourselves, to understand why we believe it costs so very much more to operate in space than to perform almost any other human activity.
According to a committee press release, Griffin, when asked by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher about the costs of going to the Moon and Mars, said, “I believe that the first expeditions to Mars should be accomplishable within an amount of funding approximately equal to what we spent on Apollo…in today’s dollars, about $130 billion. Certainly that would envelope it. I believe that it should be possible to return to the moon for in the neighborhood of $30 billion in today’s dollars. And those are both fairly comfortable amounts.”
With the costs of returning to the Moon now significantly higher than what Griffin personally estimated five years ago, a key question for Augustine and his new panel is whether current plans are simply expensive and difficult, or profligate.