How expensive is too expensive for NASA's exploration plans?

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the White House is concerned that NASA's exploration plans may not be affordable over the long haul. Specifically, the concern within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is whether Congress would be willing to spend as much as $62 billion through 2025 to develop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft, and related systems needed by the middle of the next decade to support a human mission to a near Earth asteroid as directed by the president last year. The key paragraph from the Journal article, citing an August 19 NASA budget analysis obtained by the paper: Based on priorities already adopted by Congress-then adjusting for projected inflation and accelerated development efforts-the document indicates it could cost as much as $57 billion to deploy and use the proposed systems through 2025. Upgrading launch facilities and building additional spacecraft to allow astronauts to land on the moon or an asteroid, the document indicates, could boost the total to $62.5 billion. Assuming this is spread out over 14 years (fiscal years 2012 through 2025), that works out to an average of about $4.5 billion a year, although doubtless with some peaks well above that average during various stages of development. Assuming that NASA's budget remains flat for the foreseeable future at around $17-18 billion (an assumption that could be overly optimistic given the growing pressures to cut discretionary spending), that would be about a quarter of NASA's annual budget, and could pose challenges to fit in among ISS, science, technology, and other spending. What might be causing the most sticker shock, though, are the projected mission costs, according to the report: "Based on the various levels of federal investment sketched out in the August NASA budget document, each projected flight of the new rocket could entail between $6 billion and $10 billion in overall development and related costs." The article adds that, according to "some government officials", the president is expected to make a decision in the next few weeks on what program he'll request funding for in 2012 and beyond.

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