Analysis of Projected Cost of NASA's Space Initiative

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Publication date: 
3 November 2004

A recently released report by the Congressional Budget Office provides insight into the budget implications of a manned return to the moon and robotic support missions to the moon and Mars by NASA through 2020. The analysis indicates that $32 billion more may be required to complete these missions than what the space agency now projects.

This 50-page report, "A Budgetary Analysis of NASA's New Vision for Space Exploration," was requested by the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space. The subcommittee is chaired by Sam Brownback (R-KS); John Breaux (D-LA) is the Ranking Member. The Congressional Budget Office is somewhat akin to the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, as it performs analytical work solely for Congress. CBO was established during the Nixon Administration to provide Congress with the same type of budgetary analysis that the Office of Management and Budget affords the president. CBO is nonpartisan, and does not make recommendations. The report is available at

While not as long as most analytical reports, this CBO report is not a quick read. As would be expected when viewing the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars for yet undeveloped technologies for fifteen years into the future, CBO analysts had to use several different models to estimate projected program costs. CBO also examined the impacts that higher than projected costs might have on other programs in NASA's portfolio.

In January 2004, the Bush Administration proposed a new vision for NASA entitled "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery" that was the subject of several congressional hearings this year (see,,, and Responding to an often-voiced criticism that NASA lacked an over-riding mission, the Administration proposed an ambitious multi-pronged exploration program. Under this plan, the space station will be completed and the shuttle retired by 2010, a manned replacement for the shuttle would be put into use by 2014 with the Russian Soyuz used for crew transportation in the intervening years, continued robotic missions to Mars and new lunar robotic missions, and the return of U.S. astronauts to the moon between 2015 and 2020. NASA proposes to shift funding both up and down for selected programs, while retiring the space shuttle five years earlier than originally planned. NASA projects that it could achieve these objectives with basically the same annual budget that it now has, adjusted for inflation. NASA's plans through 2020 do not include the R&D and procurement of systems for a lunar outpost or human flights to Mars.

CBO analysts used two different methods - historical program cost growth and previous analogous programs - to estimate the "potential upper [cost] bounds" of the exploration program. Using the first method, the report states:

"CBO's analysis indicates that NASA's total funding needs through 2020 might be $32 billion greater than NASA's current projection anticipates . . . . An increase of $32 billion would represent a rise of about 12 percent relative to NASA's total projected funding of $271 billion through 2020. It would constitute an increase of about 33 percent relative to the $95 billion that NASA has projected for the exploration portion of its program over that same period."

Using previous analogous programs as a basis to project program costs, the report states:

"If NASA's costs for the exploration vision through 2020 were similar to the combined costs for the analogous Apollo program and the more expensive robotic support mission analogies, NASA would require a total of $61 billion more in funding than its current projection specifies. . . . If its costs for robotic support missions were closer to those for the lower-cost robotic analogies, it would require $40 billion more. The former amount represents an increase of 23 percent over NASA's total projected funding of $271 billion; the latter, an increase of 15 percent."

What are the implications of these higher cost projections? Under one of the most difficult budget scenarios, the first return to the moon would not occur until 2027, seven years beyond the target date. Another possibility would be to take funds from other NASA programs, including aeronautics and other science missions and activities. The analysts calculated that:

"If NASA decided to maintain all of its planned robotic support missions, it could cover higher costs for both the human lunar and robotic support mission programs by reallocating funds entirely from those currently projected for aeronautics and other science missions and activities . . . . For CBO's exploration cost cases, 24 percent to 46 percent of that category's projected funding through 2020 would be needed."

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