After presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s speech that featured the goal of a permanent base on the Moon by 2020, he was criticized by some of his fellow Republican candidates, among others, for proposing what they believe to be an expensive venture. Mitt Romney’s campaign issued a statement criticizing the plan, which it argued could cost “up to $500 billion”; Rick Santorum ran a radio ad affixing the same price tag to the plan. But just how much would a lunar base cost?
In an effort to answer that and other questions about the fiscal policies of the candidates, The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget issued a report this week estimating the costs of some of those policies. The bipartisan group examined the proposals from the four major remaining candidates—Gingrich, Romney, Santorum, and Ron Paul—and estimated how much they would cost or save the taxpayers.
On page 17, it looks at Gingrich’s plan to “Establish a Moon Base and Manned Mission to Mars”. The report sets a range of prices for the plan, from $140 billion in a “low-debt” scenario to $270 billion in an “intermediate-debt” scenario up to $620 billion in the “high-debt” scenario. The committee got those estimates from a review of two earlier reports: an April 2009 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that looked at several potential funding scenarios for NASA’s then plans for space exploration, and a two-page document from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that summarized the estimated costs for an international lunar base. An endnote in the committee’s report explains the differences in the scenarios are based on different estimates of cost overruns, from 0 to 50 percent.
The committee presumably used both reports since the CBO report is focused only on the cost of Constellation, but not a lunar base; the CSIS report examined the cost of a lunar base but assumed some Constellation-specific infrastructure (Ares 5 and Orion) would be in place. (There is some overlap, since the CSIS study includes the cost of developing Altair, which the CBO also includes in their Constellation budget.) The committee’s report then simply assumes that a human mission to Mars will cost the same amount as establishing a lunar base, an assumption that the report sheepishly admits “comes with an unusually high degree of uncertainty.”
There are some flaws in the report’s analysis. One is a numeric error: the report fails to add in a 25-percent overrun for the cost from the CSIS report of the lunar base itself and it maintenance (which, for the latter, the report only includes one year of what is an annual cost, presumably since the base won’t begin operations until 2020 in this scenario.) When that happens the lunar base cost rises to $142 million and thus the total cost to $284 million. (That total works out, over eight years, to $35.5 billion a year, approximately twice NASA’s current $17.8-billion budget.) Then there’s the addition of a human mission to Mars, which Gingrich did not explicitly call for in his Florida speech last month: instead, he set a goal of developing “the first continuous propulsion system in space” to enable shorter-duration Mars missions, but didn’t state that one should be carried out by 2020.
Yet another question is whether a lunar base development plan that a President Gingrich might seek funding for would be anything like the older Constellation plans. Gingrich has given no details about his proposed lunar base, but has, in that speech and on other occasions, suggested he would make use of non-traditional approaches like prizes to fund these efforts. Whether these approaches would be successful or not is unclear, but they do suggest old models might not be the best way to estimate their costs.