Saturday, January 24, 2004
Bringing space costs back down to Earth
MSNBC :The history of wild guesses

It's undeniable that spaceflight costs money — about $15 billion a year for NASA and $20 billion more for the Pentagon's satellites and rockets. New projects involving humans with more advanced spaceships will cost even more. For many people, that already costs too much, and for others, any additional spending — even Bush's recommendation for an additional billion dollars for NASA over the next five years — is intolerable.

The origin of a super-high price tag for sending humans to Mars can be traced way back to the mid-1960s. At that time, a number of scientists, none with direct experience in space engineering, issued what space workers affectionately like to call SWAGs ("Scientific Wild-Ass Guesses") on the expenses. These were based on strained analogies to what they thought they knew about Apollo.

In 1965, D. F. Hornig, science adviser to President Johnson, told a Senate committee: "If we compare the probable scale and technical difficulties of a manned Mars expedition with Apollo, it is hard to conclude that its probable cost could be much less than perhaps five times that of Apollo — that is, of the order of $100 billion."

The same year, Abraham Hyatt wrote in Astronautics and Aeronautics magazine that "the cost of a manned Mars expedition is estimated at $75.2 billion [three Apollos] spread over a 15-year period.”

Adjusting the price tag
But based on studies conducted by Charles S. Sheldon II (a true unsung genius of space policy analysis) in the early 1970s at the Science Policy Research Division of the Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service, a very different picture emerged: "If one assumes a [space] program will have other reasons to develop a reusable shuttle, a versatile space tug and a universal space station module (all to serve many Earth orbital economic, military and scientific purposes) then even the total costs of developing a Mars expedition become far different from the kind of $100 billion figure which has been common to the literature.

"People tend to overlook how much of the Apollo costs were associated with building a basic U.S. space capability rather than just going to the moon per se," Sheldon continued. "One might think of a Mars expedition of the type discussed as much closer to the order of magnitude of $10 billion rather than the $25 to $35 billion of Apollo or the $100 billion postulated so often for Mars."

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