During the last 15 years, the US Congress has authorized budgets totaling $46 billion for various NASA deep-space exploration plans. By late summer, 2020, that total is likely to exceed $50 billion, most of which has been spent on developing a heavy-lift rocket and deep space capsule that may carry humans into deep space.
In a new analysis that includes NASA’s recently approved fiscal year 2019 budget, aerospace analyst Laura Forczyk found that, of this total, NASA has spent $16 billion on the Orion capsule, $14 billion on the Space Launch System rocket, and most of the remainder on ground systems development along with the Ares I and Ares V rockets.
For all of this spending on “exploration programs” since 2005, NASA has demonstrated relatively little spaceflight capability. The Ares I launch vehicle flew one time, in 2009, to an altitude of just 40km. (It had a dummy upper stage and fake capsule). The Ares project, as part of NASA’s Constellation Program, would be abandoned the next year, as it was behind schedule and over budget. Later, in 2014, NASA launched an uncrewed version of its Orion spacecraft on a private rocket to an altitude of 400km. The first flight of the new SLS rocket, again with an uncrewed Orion vehicle, may occur in 2021.
“SLS and Orion are political projects, not practical ones,” Forczyk told Ars.
Crewed flights of SLS and Orion—the purpose of this exploration program, which was begun back in 2005—probably will not occur before 2024 when NASA flies a crew of four to the vicinity of the Moon and back. By then, it is likely that NASA will have spent two decades working on a program, and in excess of $60 billion, to match the achievements of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. NASA is now talking about human landings on the Moon around a decade from now.
It would be easy to blame NASA for the high costs and leisurely pace of these programs. Indeed, the agency has publicly lauded these rockets and spacecraft as the key to sending humans back into deep space for the first time since the heady days of the Apollo program. However, each of these programs was established by the White House or US Congress and assigned to the space agency with varied demands.
15 years, and counting
Over the last 15 years, NASA has adapted this deep-space architecture to changing demands. In early 2004, President George W. Bush said the agency should go to the Moon and then Mars. Six years later, President Barack Obama’s administration directed the agency to visit an asteroid and then go directly to Mars. Finally, in 2018, President Donald Trump authorized NASA to build a “gateway” in lunar orbit, proceed to the lunar surface from there, and then, at some distant date, move on to Mars.
Only one time during this era did someone in power attempt to end NASA’s efforts to develop a large rocket and spacecraft. In 2010, President Obama sought to cancel the Constellation Program, which entailed Orion, the smaller Ares I, and larger Ares V rocket. NASA’s deputy administrator at the time, Lori Garver, and others fought hard for several months to push NASA toward development of other technologies needed for human landings on Mars or other worlds, such as in-space propulsion, but ultimately a bipartisan Congress wanted the development programs to remain.
So, eventually, Orion was reinstated, and the SLS rocket replaced Ares V. This has been more or less the status quo since 2011, as NASA has spent increasing amounts on SLS, Orion, and their ground systems—rising from about $3 billion annually in 2012 to more than $4 billion now. The agency may use them during the next decade, or it may not if a future president decides to pivot back to low-Earth orbit or if private rockets equal SLS and Orion’s capabilities at lower costs.
“As far as I’m concerned, SLS and Orion are doing their jobs of providing work for NASA centers and contractors and giving the US a sense of national pride to have a major goal to work toward,” Forczyk said. “They are not meant to be quick, cost efficient, or sustainable. They are symbolic grand acts of a grand nation.”