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The Price of Human Spaceflight

NASA’s now defunct Constellation program came with a $9 billion price tag. Is there a cheaper way?

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So NASA’s Constellation program is dead. No more Ares rockets, no government-funded Orion capsule.

With all due respect to the engineers who worked on the program, we’re better off without it.

After six years and $9 billion spent, Constellation only managed a single suborbital test launch—of mostly mockup hardware. By comparison, Elon Musk—the leader of a pack of entrepreneurs who hope to take Constellation’s launch business—started his company (SpaceX) in 2002, designed and built two new rockets from scratch, and sent one into orbit—also within six years. With his own money.

Emotions are running high in the wake of Constellation’s demise, with lots of angry backlash. If Return-to-the-Moon boosters need someone beside NASA to blame, they could point a finger at the Bush White House, which never delivered the promised funding, or Congress, whose oversight of NASA often amounts only to protecting jobs in key districts, however inefficient.

That dysfunctional behavior is certain to continue, which means Constellation was likely to keep overspending and underperforming. As Jim Kohlenberger of the White House science office said this week to a reporter who questioned walking away from the $9 billion investment in Constellation, “That isn’t an excuse to pour another $50 billion into an unsustainable program.”

Can SpaceX, or SpaceDev, or Blue Origin, or any of the other commercial launch contenders really bring down costs and change the game of human space exploration? Musk clams he can send people into orbit for $20 million a seat and do it by 2014, faster than Constellation would have. We’ll see. But even if his pricing is off by a factor of five, he’ll still beat Ares/Orion.

What about safety? Defenders of the status quo argue, passionately, that putting astronauts on private launchers is far too risky. (Never mind that NASA inspectors will look over the vehicles first, or that some of the commercial rockets are older and more reliable than the space shuttle, or that the Russians beat NASA’s prices every day, and have the safest launchers in the world.)

After the Challenger and Columbia accidents, NASA reminded the public that sending people into space is inherently dangerous, and always will be. Will Musk et al. get the same allowance if (when?) they have accidents?

Other critics predict that layers of NASA oversight will drive up the private launchers’ costs enough that they, too, will eventually want half a billion dollars for each ferry flight to the space station. Just wait, the skeptics say. The new contractors will start acting—and charging—like the old ones.

Maybe so. But if that’s really the answer, if it turns out that safe human spaceflight will always be fantastically expensive, it’s fair to question whether it can continue.

Pleading for more money won’t work. NASA currently spends about $10 billion a year on human spaceflight, a huge amount by any standard. That’s more than the entire National Science Foundation gets, and twice the budget of the National Cancer Institute. Defenders of the old program can’t just keep crying poorhouse. Not in this economy. Not ever.

We need to either find a dramatically cheaper approach to human spaceflight (a worthy challenge for a 21st-Century NASA), or see it priced out of business. Viewed in those stark terms, the “gamble” on commercial launch is no gamble at all.

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