Blood and Money

“The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steam ships . . . it seems safe to say that such ideas are wholly visionary and even if the machine could get across with one or two passengers, the expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could use his own yacht.”   –W. H. Pickering, 1910


The news in the aerospace business is abuzz with discussion about the cost of spaceflight:  new studies on what Apollo actually cost back in the day, rumored estimates of the potential cost of the Artemis program through first landing, reports about cost overruns on some NASA activities.  All this stimulated my thoughts about costs and finance.

I need to hasten to add that I have not been privy to any inside information at NASA on these topics, although I believe they are working hard on budgets and cost estimates.  Rather I am thinking about history and how that informs the future.

Deep in the NASA mythology is a story about the legendary Administrator James Webb.  Allegedly, on the limo ride from NASA HQ to the White House to present the budget estimate for the proposed manned moon landing, Webb reviewed the $10 billion estimate and decided, on experience alone, that it should be doubled.  Moments later Webb presented JFK with a $20 billion estimate.  The actual cost came out to be about $24 billion or a 20% overrun from that estimate.

Myths – whether actually true or not – illustrate some value in a culture.  The value illustrated here is that all cost estimates come in lower than what the program will really cost.  Norman Augustine captured this in his book “Laws” about aerospace projects: (Law XXIV) “The most unsuccessful three years in the education of cost estimators appears to be fifth-grade arithmetic.”

Recent news media accounts of the Artemis program to potentially cost “$20 to $30 billion” over five years implies that sticker shock will occur in Congress.  This is a reasonable fear since sticker shock killed the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989.  And in 2009, Augustine himself concluded that the Constellation program was ‘unsustainable’ – code for Congress would balk at the cost.

I have not been briefed on any overall cost study results for Artemis.  My unscientific, gut response is surprise that the reported cost estimate isn’t twice as much.  Maybe the measures taken to build public-private partnerships and engage the efficiency of the commercial space industry allow for lower cost estimates.  We will see.

Either way, my judgement is that such a program would be a bargain basement good deal for the future of our country and humanity.  These numbers sound big to the average mortal, but as an investment in the future this is not much.  These figures are round off errors for the levels of funding for Medicare or the DoD budget; numbers Congress deals with regularly.

Enabling commerce in space will lead to unimaginable products in the future.  Could the Wright brothers have envisioned the ease with which so many people fly all around the world?  Could Alexander Graham Bell have envisioned an iPhone?  Space commerce today is a profitable with communications satellites, weather and resource monitoring.  Prospectively there could be return on investment – after the transportation is established – in off-earth mining.  But we cannot imagine what the real future most valuable space product will be.  It is as if we are trying to estimate the benefit of the transcontinental railroad in the 1850’s.  Leading the way to Mars – via the Moon – can lead to huge benefits to our descendants.

But I must say ‘Enough.’  Enough already with the fixation on financial cost, important as it may be.  Money is not the most important cost that the nation must face to commit to Artemis.  So far the discussion has not been about the real cost, the cost that might very well stop any advanced space exploration program:  casualties.

The Apollo program lost three crew in a ground accident; nearly lost three more on Apollo 13, and had more close calls than most people are aware of.  Just getting to low earth orbit, Soyuz lost two crews in two reentry accidents and had at least four more failed missions.  Shuttle, as we know all too well, flew 10 times as many flights as Apollo and lost two crews; 14 souls.

We must have a clear-eyed appreciation for the risk involved in space exploration.  Flying to the moon will not be much safer in 2024 than it was in 1969.  Exploration always comes with risk, and with some regularity exploration risk is realized.

The real cost of Artemis will be written in blood.  Face that fact.

This may be considered a poor time to bring this up – at a time when so many folks are actively working toward program approval.  Death is hardly a selling point.  But if we don’t recognize that fact, the program will come apart at the first bad day.

I for one think this an acceptable cost – if we are so unfortunate to incur it.  But the nation needs to make the commitment to put people in harms way.  This is only acceptable because of the benefits that will follow.  If we stop at the first accident because the public did not realize it might happen it would be better not to start at all.

Years ago, when I visited the Oregon trail, I was struck with a plaque that quoted one traveler: “Every few yards along the trail there was some jettisoned furniture or luggage; every quarter mile the carcass of a horse or oxen, and every mile a grave.”  As Winston Churchill once told the Canadian Parliament: “We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”

We have a choice to make; we need to count the cost and the potential rewards.

Then we can commit.  Or stay home.

I vote to go.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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22 Responses to Blood and Money

  1. John Frost says:

    Good thoughts Wayne and appropriate timing.


    John (EX ASAP)

    John C. Frost


    Safety Technology Services, Inc.

    2627 Trailway Rd.

    Huntsville, AL 35801

    (256) 650-0335

  2. René Arriens says:

    It is my it is my hope that all commercial entities involved in this endeavor are positioned to survive such setbacks.

  3. René Arriens says:

    Such incurred losses Maybe one of the reasons NASA was formed

  4. kennethpkatz says:

    The financial cost is a much bigger deal than the cost in blood. That may sound callous but it’s reality.

    The cost in blood will be paid by highly motivated volunteers who know what they are doing and the risks that they are facing, and willingly assume them. BTW, it hasn’t been only astronauts who have died pursuing the dream of space exploration.

    The government of the United States of America is deeply in debt and getting deeper every day, with no change even under discussion. For now and for a variety of reasons, that fact does not affect everyday life. Unless the United States is truly different than every other polity in history, the debt will one day greatly affect the United States, and when that day comes, the most optimistic possible scenario is financial austerity which will gut the space program. I wouldn’t bet on the most optimistic scenario.

    • cthulhu says:

      The financial cost is a much bigger deal than the cost in blood. That may sound callous but it’s reality.

      Initially, probably so. But – I think this what Wayne is driving at – the first time an “unknown unknown” kills a crew, we (Congress, the Executive branch, and the American people) must be prepared to keep going. And it would be better if we can all go into it with our eyes wide open.

    • Daniel Schultz says:

      My conversations with several astronauts indicates that they were not always aware of the engineering discussions that occurred before their flights. The Challenger crew was not aware of the concerns about freezing temperatures and O-ring performance while they were boarding the shuttle that morning. These highly motivated volunteers don’t always know the specific risks that they face, only a general sense that something could go wrong. I have also heard it said that there never was a Shuttle launch that wasn’t opposed by some concerned expert somewhere.

      • waynehale says:

        I would concur with that last statement. As a note, the crew assigned to a flight never appeared at the FRR – quarantine restrictions plus sleep shifting – but they were represented by the Flight Crew Operations Director, the Chief Astronaut, the JSC Center Director, and Capt. John Young. They made sure that the crew’s interests were well protected and the FRR discussions were summarized to the crew back in quarantine quarters later. Trust me, if the flight crew objected, we would not fly.

  5. henry vanderbilt says:

    I am inclined to agree that the intended result of Artemis, incremental development of an eventual reusable and affordably scalable Earth-Moon transport net, is worth it even if costs do come out at the high end of the ranges mentioned so far.

    The key issue I see in contention though is, if we take the approach that generates that high end of the estimates, will the job ever be done at all? That approach being to entrust overall project management plus key hardware element developments to the existing NASA human exploration bureaucracy. Which, with all due respect, has gone downhill in the generation since it spent hundreds of billions to eventually fly Station, never mind in the two generations since it developed Shuttle or the three since Apollo.

    Seriously. The recent Constellation then SLS/Orion track record is, funding at growing billions a year, in exchange for apparently indefinite year-per-year delays, to develop obsolescent systems we won’t be able to afford to fly more than once a year anyway. Is NASA human exploration even capable of doing better at this point? Bureaucracies do sometimes reach a state of terminal sclerosis as they age. The evidence I see indicates exactly that here (though I’ll certainly listen to reasoned argument otherwise.)

    NASA HQ would seem to be aware of this problem, as evidenced by their attempts to manage Artemis via a brand new directorate and to bypass SLS (defeated by Congress), and to bring in commercial developers for landers (jury’s still out.) But at this point, anyone knowledgeable looking at the question of whether NASA should be given $4G-$6G/year in new funding for Artemis has to be aware of the strong possibility that renewed traffic to Luna still won’t result.

    We do have a problem here, and a solution doesn’t seem practicable in the current political environment. My best guess is, absent drastic changes, we’ll see Artemis die the traditional death of lip-service – the goals will remain official, but the required new funding (or the permissions to truly radically redirect existing funding) to make it actually happen won’t be there.

  6. Randy Wade says:

    Very nice article. Thank you Wayne!

  7. michael moore says:

    Wayne, I have to agree with you about the cost proposed for the Artemis Proposal. What seems not that long ago I was involved in the costing exercise for the Mars/SDI launch system that at the time was sized to launch the 6 Million Lbs. per year estimated to achieve either of those missions. With huge, partially reusable mass produced high tech launchers driving down the cost (and a bit of optimism…) we were able to say the launch side of the missions were going to run about $25B in 89$’s. I’m sure the Artemis is much more limited in launch scope than what we were looking do, but given how the SLS is (not) progressing, I think 20 to 30 B for the launcher, launches, landers, habitats and the requisite marching army for a Human system needs to have the Ed Weiller Pi factor added just for starters.

    On the other hand, I agree that in the greater scheme of things, it is a small cost that we don’t blink at when considering new ships and planes for the Military and certainly a small investment given the net worth of the nation. I think the return on the investment in the feeling that the Country is doing something that is not focused on making money or making war, something that we can be proud of in the existential kind of way the Space Program has done up till the end of the STS has been worth every penny. I’ve met many people who think we “spent too much” on the Space Program, but in the end, they were proud of what the country had done.

    PS, Re your Pickering quote, Sub-orbital passenger transport has to be more efficient than any SST. I liked Heinlein’s Antipodes Rocket Corporation from the really early days. Not so much the Atomic Reactor boiling mercury out the nozzle modification though.


  8. Tim King says:

    Go here, flight.

  9. ortegasam says:

    Audacious Fortuna Juvat

  10. Jim McDade says:

    Cost-fixation is the bane of US human spaceflight. JFK was right when he told Congress and America that it would have been better to not go to the Moon at all if the nation was not going to be fully committed to that goal. There is no such thing as cheap and safe in space travel. Cost control is very important, but not at the expense of safety.

    • kennethpkatz says:

      Finite resources and infinite desires are a fact of life. Clearly there are smart ways of cost control and stupid ways of cost control, but “cost is no object” is never sustainable.

  11. Stephen Brettel says:

    Your perspective is spot on. Only from great risk do we actually achieve greatness as a society. Hopefully the world will recognize this before we waste another 50 years.

  12. Dennis Romano says:

    I emphatically vote to go. It is our nature to explore and we MUST do it. I was excited about Apollo as a college student, I was excited about Constellation (which I worked on for about 2 1/2 years as a NASA systems engineer), and I’m excited about Artemis. We just need the national will to do it and that will require properly articulating it to the public. Without the public behind it, it will not happen; we need more than “space geeks” behind it.

  13. James Carleton says:

    Go with Godspeed!

  14. Mal Peterson says:

    Regarding the Apollo cost estimate, Jim Webb and Bill Lilly(NASA Comptroller) discussed the In-house cost estimates and agreed they were low-balled before Webb saw JFK. The scope of the Apollo program and the uniqueness of the technical and management challenges meant no cost estimating group had any prior data to create the basis for a cost estimating relationship; hence, adding a 100% reserve for “unknowns” made sense.

  15. Dave H. says:

    “Fifth grade arithmetic” my eye! Any contractor who wants to stay in business knows to never bid hard money on a job whose requirements are likely to constantly change. Time and material.

    • waynehale says:

      Yet it seems to be common practice in the aerospace business

      • Dave H. says:

        And I don’t know why. The physics of spaceflight aren’t understood well enough that building spacecraft is anywhere as mature as, say, building aircraft. Witness Boeing’s ongoing debacle with the 737 Max 8. They’ve been building 737s for decades but this version threatens to bankrupt the company.

        When I was building gas turbine power plants for Westinghouse the requirements were predictable and you knew what it would cost. The problems came when the customer would come up with changes not specified in the contract. That always led to the estimators having to visit the jobsite to confer with the customer.

        Good to see you sharing your experiences again, Wayne.I hope that you get to visit the restored Apollo control room and tell us what it’s like.
        Next July I will retire, and getting to JSC is on my bucket list.

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