A Wall Street Journal article entitled "White House Experiences Sticker Shock Over NASA's Plans" has observers of the space program abuzz for its conclusion that NASA's current space exploration program would cost about $62 billion through 2025.
Included in the cost is apparently not only the Space Launch System, the much discussed, much argued about heavy lift launch vehicle, but also the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle and some kind of vehicle to either land astronauts on the moon or send them to an asteroid. The article suggests White House and OMB officials are experiencing "sticker shock" over the numbers.
The number is somewhat less that the Augustine Committee suggested a space exploration program would cost through the first mission, about $98 billion. Averaged out over 14 years, the cost quoted in the Wall Street Journal article comes out to $4.4 billion a year. Even considering that the figure is just an average, with peak funding likely being more, the number quoted does not sound all that bad, under ordinary circumstances.
These are not, of course, ordinary circumstances. The organization calling itself "Tea Party in Space" has issued an instant communique condemning the SLS, NASA's plans for space exploration, and United States Senators who support it.
"There is nothing fiscally responsible, limited in government, or accessing the free markets about this program. These senators are destroying NASA for their own personal greed. There are so many alternatives to SLS and yet these senators are blinded by power. To these senators, NASA is not Humanity's space program but their own personal slush funds that have been flowing freely for over 40 years.
"TPIS has reached out to our Tea Party Caucus members on Capitol Hill. We do not want to kill NASA, we want to save NASA. The fiscal reality is that if we allow these senators to continue down this path, we will not have American human space flight ... at all."
The TPIS has not given any details about the "alternatives to SLS" and why they would be cheaper and safer than the current plan.
While people and organizations such as the Tea Party In Space who seem opposed to space exploration beyond Earth orbit are using purple prose to defend their position, they are in line with the zeitgeist of the time, which strongly opposes new spending programs in an era of huge budget deficits. Absent a president who is willing to place his influence and political capital at the service of jump-starting a program to explore space beyond low Earth orbit, it is not likely that such an undertaking will get off the ground.
Reading between the lines of the article, which has all the characteristics of being based on a White House leak, with the loaded language about officials being in a state of "sticker shock," one cannot but wonder if the Obama administration has put out this story as a means of killing the space exploration project entirely.
Placing the story in context, Reuters is reporting that the Obama jobs bill proposal will contain $300 billion in infrastructure spending and tax credits, likely to be spent over a quicker time frame than 15 years. An administration that is experiencing "sticker shock" over a $62 billion space program over 15 years while proposing $300 billion to build roads and bridges, something that the previous $900 billion stimulus was supposed to have accomplished, is not reacting out of fiscal frugality.
It is pushing back against a congressionally mandated space exploration program that it does not want to carry out and will stoop to anything to avoid doing.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker . He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.