Another look at the cost of building NASA’s heavy lift rocket


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Clark Lindsey takes another look at the cost for building the Congressionally-mandated heavy lift rocket, what NASA calls the Space Launch System and I call the program-formerly-called-Constellation. Key quote:

Finally, I’ll point out that there was certainly nothing on Wednesday that refuted the findings in the Booz Allen study that NASA’s estimates beyond the 3-5 year time frame are fraught with great uncertainty. Hutchison and Nelson claimed last week that since the near term estimates were reliable, there’s no reason to delay getting the program underway. That’s the sort of good governance that explains why programs often explode “unexpectedly” in cost after 3-5 years…

In other words, this is what government insiders call a “buy-in.” Offer low-ball budget numbers to get the project off the ground, then when the project is partly finished and the much higher real costs become evident, Congress will be forced to pay for it. Not only has this been routine practice in Washington for decades, I can instantly cite two projects that prove it:

  • The Hubble Space Telescope: Initially budgeted at $350 million. Final budget: $1 billion
  • The James Webb Space Telescope: Initially budgeted at $1.2 billion. Present budget: more than $8 billion

I just happen to know the budget numbers for these two projects off the top of my head. However, if I did a little digging I could add numerous others to this list, from high-speed rail to nuclear submarines to Mars rovers to ISS. Why should this new rocket be any different? Unlike privately built and financed projects, there is no incentive for a government-mandated, government-built, and government-financed project to keep costs down. The money comes from coerced tax dollars, and there are no profits expected at the end of the rainbow.

With the new commercial space companies, they are building their rockets not for NASA but for themselves, in order to make money by selling a good product at a reasonable costs. NASA just happens to be one of their customers. The result is the cost is much less, the rocket gets built much faster, and everyone wins.

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