08 July 2011

Space Shuttle Costs Revisited

[UPDATE: More here from NPR.]

As the space shuttle orbits the earth for the last times, the WSJ Numbers Guy has an interesting overview of efforts to calculate the costs of the Space Shuttle program over its life. Here is an excerpt that describes how I first got onto this subject about 20 years ago (see, e.g., this paper in PDF):
Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, first estimated the shuttle's cost to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration through the early 1990s. He was surprised to be assigned the project by his master's thesis adviser, Rad Byerly, who had just completed a stint as staff director of a House space and aeronautics subcommittee. "I said, 'Isn't this something you could snap your fingers and find out?' " Prof. Pielke recalls.
It is strange that NASA suggests to the WSJ that the best way to add up budget numbers is to avoid adjusting inflation. In my classes on budgeting that perspective earns a failing grade.


  1. Ten billion here, ten billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money...

  2. I'm less concerned about total cost estimates - as important as they are - than I am about production. If we had known how little we'd get for our money, the project would never have gotten off the ground. It was oversold by orders of magnitude, and was little more than an income redistribution scheme benefiting Florida, Texas and a few other states.

    Next, we have to shut down that useless space station.

  3. The Economist has a related article:

    The end of the Space Age



    "The other source of revenue [for the Space Shuttle] is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science."

  4. Great post.

    The Shuttle has always suffered from not being Apollo. And there's a lesson here.

    Over the last few months, I've heard several people expound on the need for a "moonshot equivalent" effort to solve some problem they hold near and dear. The most recent was a talk by a high level EPA administrator as he whistfully (IMO) dreamed about getting his hands on gobs of $$$, but I've also seen the argument on blogs wrt to renewable energy.

    So what would we need for a modern day "moonshot".

    From your 1990 paper, you list the cost of Apollo in 1990 dollars to be $85-95 B, using a GNP deflator approach, which is broadly consistent with the widely quoted number of $25 billion dollars if we assume the spend was roughly centered on 1966 (i.e, use 1966 dollars for the $25 B).

    (Try it! http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/ )

    A visit to our friends at Wiki tells us:

    "In 2009, NASA held a symposium on project costs which presented an estimate of the Apollo program costs in 2005 dollars as roughly $170 billion. This included all research and development costs; the procurement of 15 Saturn V rockets, 16 Command/Service Modules, 12 Lunar Modules, plus program support and management costs; construction expenses for facilities and their upgrading, and costs for flight operations."


    So using the handy calculator above, on a GDPdeflator basis, your roughly $90B becomes about $140B in 2011 dollars and the $170B in 2005 becomes about $190B.

    Although it's often stated that Apollo ran 13-14 years, let's use 10 years for simplicity and to also reflect that the spending was concentrated in the 60s, so these calcs give us a 2011 moonshot spend of $14-$19B/yr.

    Let's be generous and call it $20B.

    Where does that leave us? Well, a few 2011 budget numbers for perspective (all in billions).

    EPA - 10
    DOE renewable energy - 3
    Ethanol tax subsidy - 6

    Hmm...kind of easy to chew up 20B these days.

    But let’s give our advocates $20B/yr in new and focused funding for their new moonshot.

    Here’s what they will have to provide to fully make the analogy:

    1) Define a specific time frame (Kennedy: “by the end of this decade”)
    2) Define “success” (we either landed on the moon and returned our men safely or we didn’t)
    3) Capture the public’s imagination, which requires clearly defined timetables and clear, understandable milestones.

    Returning now to the Shuttle, it lacked all three.

    My guess is that new "moonshots" would too.

  5. Hey, Roger, I believe "numbers" is spelled with a "b".

    I tell you, being a copy editor is a curse....