NASA wrestles with cost of moon base

Published December 10, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL - It'll be cheaper to build a permanent moon base and keep it running, than it will be to get to the moon. Just don't ask how much, NASA's boss says.

The U.S. space agency's newly unveiled grand plan for a continually staffed lunar outpost starting around 2024 doesn't come with a similarly grand price tag. It doesn't come with a price tag at all.

"You ask what things will cost. I don't know yet," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, a detail-oriented engineer. "We just rolled out a very preliminary architecture."

Griffin's lack of specifics is partly because NASA is budgeting its large cosmic construction projects differently, more "pay as you go" than "get there at all costs."

It's a departure that outsiders call either a brilliant way to avoid cost overruns and sticker shock - or a blank check that will end up squeezing taxpayers.

"Typically a habitat is less than the cost of large rocketry," Griffin said in an interview with the Associated Press as he awaited a space shuttle launch that was foiled on Thursday.

Last year, NASA said it would cost about $104-billion leading up to the first moon landing, now scheduled to happen by 2020. But that doesn't include the cost of multiple and continuous moon flights and the price of building and running the newly unveiled lunar outpost.

The Government Accountability Office, the independent auditing arm of Congress, puts the cost of NASA's lunar program through 2025 at $230-billion.

There is still no estimate from anyone for the second phase of President Bush's 3-year-old "vision of space exploration" - an expedition to Mars.

Griffin said NASA should be able to pay for the lunar phase of this space vision simply by using its existing yearly budget of about $16.8-billion. If something has to give, he said, it will be the target dates.

American University public policy professor Howard McCurdy said that method gives NASA "a real incentive to invest that money wisely."

And it gives the space agency a mission without an end date when the budget axes start coming out, he said.

"You don't know when to draw the line in the sand and say 'the program is over,' " McCurdy said. "It is a program like Buzz Lightyear that does whatever it can and reaches infinity," he said, in a joking reference to the Toy Story movie character.

This way there are no budget overruns like those that have dogged the international space station, which was once projected to cost $17-billion but is actually in the $50-billion range, McCurdy said. It also avoids the sticker shock of a $500-billion moon-and-Mars program proposed by President Bush's father.

But Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group, calls the moon plans a waste.

"You've got to have some price tag on what you're going to do, otherwise you're going to continue to waste money," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the group. "This is like building a house and not knowing how much it is. You don't have plans."

Griffin says many of the details of the lunar station are purposely being left to future rocket scientists. He envisions the outpost, not as a city, but more like America's research station in Antarctica.

"It is the choice of the next generation to decide to avail themselves of that option," Griffin said. If they don't want to stay and research on the moon "then we'll move on more rapidly to Mars."

What Griffin doesn't want is a repeat of the mistaken choice to mothball Apollo, made by the White House in the early 1970s.

"We're rebuilding systems that we had 40 years ago ... and then discarded," he said. "That was not a NASA mistake. It was a policy mistake at the highest level of the U.S. government. ... My generation now has the task before it of fixing that mistake."