“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.