In this undated photo provided by NASA, the Orion space capsule is displayed… (Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — The rocket and capsule that NASA is proposing to return astronauts to the moon would fly just twice in the next 10 years and cost as much as $38 billion, according to internal NASA documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
The money would pay for a new heavy-lift rocket and Apollo-like crew capsule that eventually could take astronauts to the moon and beyond. But it would not be enough to pay for a lunar landing or for more than one manned test flight, in 2021.
That timeline and price tag could pose serious problems for supporters of the new spacecraft, which is being built from recycled parts of the shuttle and the now-defunct Constellation moon program. In effect, it means that it would take the U.S. manned-space program more than 50 years — if ever — to duplicate its 1969 landing on the moon.
Such an outlook is certain to infuriate NASA supporters in Congress, who last year ordered the agency to build a new heavy-lift rocket by December 2016, a deadline NASA says it can't meet. And it may well convince others that there's no good reason not to slash NASA's budget as part of a recent deal to cut federal spending by at least $2.1 trillion over 10 years.
"It's easier to balance the budget by going after the big numbers rather than the little numbers," said Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University in Washington. He said the new rocket might be spared if NASA keeps the program within its budget, a big if considering NASA's history of significant cost overruns.
"That's what is going to get them [NASA officials] in trouble, if they come back hat in hand asking for money," McCurdy said.
According to preliminary NASA estimates, it would cost $17 billion to $22 billion to ready the new rocket and Orion capsule for a test flight in December 2017 that would put an unmanned capsule into a lunar orbit. An additional $12 billion to $16 billion would be needed to launch the first crew on a lunar flyby in August 2021.
NASA spokesman David Weaver said nothing was yet final, however, and that the agency still was crunching numbers.
"We want to get this right and ensure we have a sustainable program so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past," Weaver said in a statement.
The agency has contracted with Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia consulting firm, to conduct an independent assessment. The firm's findings are expected this month, and even agency insiders expect Booz Allen Hamilton to come back with a higher price tag given NASA's history of lowballing initial cost estimates.
The high cost and 10-year schedule are being floated despite a 2010 agreement by Congress and the White House that all but requires NASA to rely on existing shuttle parts and remnants of the now-defunct Constellation moon program, which cost taxpayers $13.1 billion through April without producing a flyable rocket or capsule. The intent was to get the rocket built quickly and comparatively cheaply.
NASA has not officially announced a design, but internal NASA documents show the agency intends to replicate much of the shuttle design, retaining the shuttle's orange fuel tank and side-mounted boosters. The plane-like orbiter would be replaced by the Orion capsule, left over from the Constellation program, atop the tank.
U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) a frequent NASA critic, said the money would be better spent by investing in commercial rocket companies or converting military rockets rather than recycling equipment from NASA's scrap yard.
"This is an absolute waste of borrowed money," Rohrabacher said in a statement. He said that "for much, much less than $38 billion" NASA could invest in new technologies, such as orbiting fuel depots, that would help NASA use military or commercial rockets and "explore the solar system with our existing American launch vehicle fleet."
NASA has been working to jump-start a commercial space industry that would ferry crews and cargo to the International Space Station this decade. And though the rockets and capsules are smaller and less complex than would be required to go to the moon, initial cost estimates for commercial spaceflight appear much lower than NASA's numbers.
Last week, Boeing announced that it intended to build its own capsule to fly aboard an existing rocket, the Atlas V, which it said could be ready to fly crews to the space station by 2015.
John Elbon, manager of Boeing's commercial crew program, said the company could meet the milestone if it received some of the $850 million per year that President Obama has requested for the next five years for commercial spaceflight.
Another contender is Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, which last year designed, built and flew its Dragon capsule into orbit and safely returned it to Earth for less than $1 billion. Founder Elon Musk has told friends that he thinks SpaceX could build a rocket able to fly to the moon for about $3 billion.