The Orlando Sentinel reported late today that NASA estimates the cost of its new heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew spacecraft could be as much as $38 billion through 2021. The estimate, from an internal NASA report obtained by the Sentinel, pegged the cost of developing the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) through 2017, the scheduled date of the first, uncrewed test flight of the vehicles, at $17-22 billion. Getting the vehicles ready for their next launch, and the first crewed mission, in late 2021 would be an additional $12-16 billion, bringing the overall cost through 2021 at $29-38 billion.
The article doesn’t go into greater details about the cost estimates, but the numbers given work out to an average cost per year in the first phase of $2.4-3.1 billion (assuming this starts in fiscal year 2011, when Congress appropriated $3 billion in the final continuing resolution for SLS and MPCV.) In the second phase (2018-2021), the cost of preparing the vehicles for crewed missions and carrying out that initial human circumlunar mission would cost an average of $3-4 billion a year.
The sums reported in the article can cause some sticker shock, but the per-year averages are not nearly as bad, and in line with what Congress appropriated in 2011 and has proposed (at least in the House) for 2012. However, there are several caveats to keep in mind. One is that development programs rarely have flat budgets: there will be, presumably, a peak in funding at some point, perhaps around mid-decade, where the program costs will be considerably higher than the average. A second issue is whether even the average funding levels can be sustained over a longer period, particularly in an era of relative fiscal austerity for discretionary programs like NASA. Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is that this is NASA’s own internal budget estimate, and the agency does not have a track record for hewing closely to those original estimates as programs are implemented. A separate independent cost review by Booz Allen Hamilton is in progress, as previously reported; as the Sentinel article notes, “even agency insiders expect Booz Allen Hamilton to come back with a higher price tag given NASA’s history of lowballing initial cost estimates.”