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The NASA Numbers Behind That WSJ Article

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2011
Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:17 PM has obtained a copy of the NASA charts that apparently are the source of data for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that has everyone in space policy circles abuzz.

In a story on Wednesday, the WSJ asserted that the White House has "sticker shock" over the potential cost of NASA's exploration program to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. The newspaper said it was based on NASA charts showing NASA's current cost estimate for the program versus higher projected costs if the program is accelerated to achieve earlier results. The story prompted a scathing statement by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) calling the figures cited by the WSJ "contrived numbers" that are part of a "campaign to undermine America's manned space program."

The charts-- labeled "ESD Integration, Budget Availability Scenarios" -- do not reveal the motivation for their existence or who created them, other than the NASA logo on each of the 26 pages. They map out the budget and schedule details of five different scenarios. All assume the first flight of a 70 metric ton (mT) version of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2017, but milestone dates for the 70mT SLS with a crew and for the 130 mT version of the SLS and flight rates differ in the various scenarios. In short they are:

  • Case 1: the President's budget (one flight every two years, 70 mT SLS in 2017, 70 mT SLS with crew in 2021, 130 mT SLS no earlier than 2030)
  • Case 2: the President's budget with an escalation after FY2017 (same as Case 1, but with one flight every year beginning in 2023);
  • Case 3: the "Senate Authorization Act," a reference to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that originated in the Senate (one flight per year, 70mT SLS in 2017, 70 mT SLS with crew in 2018, and 130 mT SLS in 2021)
  • Case 4a: the Senate Authorization Act plus escalation after FY2017 (same as Case 3, but two flights per year beginning in 2022 and a $2.1 billion wedge for in-space elements); and
  • Case 4b: the Senate Authorization Act plus escalation after FY2017 (same as Case 4a, but one flight per year and a $4.5 billion wedge for in-space elements).

The cost through 2025 for each of those scenarios, in "real year dollars" (i.e. escalated for inflation), is shown both for "full cost" and for "procurements only" as follows:

  • $41.4 billion full cost, $35.2 billion procurement only (based on a preliminary NASA cost estimate from June 27, 2011)
  • $44.7 billion full cost, $37.3 billion procurement only
  • $57.9 billion full cost, $50.9 billion procurement only
  • $62.5 biliion full cost, $55.4 billion procurement only
  • $62.5 billion full cost, $55.4 billion procurement only

"Full cost" generally means that it includes agency costs such as salaries for civil servants that are not included in procurements from outside contractors.

During a luncheon speech to the Space Transportation Association (STA) yesterday, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said that the space program is one of limitless possibilities and, for example, there were "a thousand or so" permutations of possibilities for a heavy lift launch vehicle that the agency has studied over the years. In a speech about "decision fatigue," he asked rhetorically whether having so many options is such a good thing.

Why these particular scenarios were chosen for this budget analysis and shared with the WSJ and how many similar analyses exist comparing other possibilities remain unclear.

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