NASA IG questions space station cost projections

CBS News

NASA cost estimates for operating the International Space Station through 2024 are "overly optimistic," the agency's inspector general reported Thursday, adding that the price of new U.S.-built space taxis likely will be higher than currently projected, exceeding the cost of flying aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin also raised questions about NASA's ability to safely operate the lab complex through 2024, the current goal, unless engineers can develop ways to offset age-related solar array degradation; minimize equipment failures and get large replacement components to the lab in the absence of the space shuttle.

"While the ISS program is actively working to mitigate these risks, anticipating the correct amount of replacement parts and transporting them to the ISS present major challenges to extending station operations 10 or more years beyond its original expected service life," Martin concluded.

The International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

More troubling, perhaps, the OIG found that the "assumptions underlying the agency’s budget projections for the ISS are overly optimistic and that its actual costs may be higher."

The report said NASA projects the space station budget will grow from $3 billion a year to nearly $4 billion by fiscal 2020. But the OIG found station costs rose 26 percent between fiscal 2011 and 2013 "and an average of 8 percent annually over the life of the program."

Much of the projected cost increase, the report said, was due to higher transportation costs.

"NASA’s estimates for the cost of commercial crew transportation services expected to replace the Russian Soyuz are based on the cost of a Soyuz seat in FY 2016 -- $70.7 million -- per seat for a total cost of $283 million per mission for transporting four astronauts," the report said.

"However, the program’s independent government cost estimates project significantly higher transportation costs when the agency transitions to contracts with commercial spaceflight companies."

NASA has relied on the three-seat Russian Soyuz to ferry astronauts to and from the space station since even before the shuttle's retirement in 2011. While the cost per seat is significant, it is far less than the cost of a seat on the much more powerful, and more expensive, space shuttle.

Even so, the lack of a U.S.-built ferry craft has rankled lawmakers and NASA managers alike.

"You can't really be a serious leader in space if you can't get your people there on your own spaceship," historian John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in an interview Wednesday. "The relationship with Russia has been successful, it's cost us less money than doing it on our own. If we were still flying shuttles, we'd be paying a hell of a lot more than the cost of seats on a Soyuz."

But commercial U.S. ferry craft represent "both a real and symbolic indication that the United States is one of the leading space countries," he said.

On Wednesday, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX would share contracts totaling $6.8 billion to build U.S. crew capsules for flights to low-Earth orbit, carrying four astronauts at a time to the station starting in 2017.

It is not yet known how much it will cost to fly astronauts aboard the Boeing CST-100 capsule or SpaceX's Dragon crew ship, but given the cost of the boosters required and the spacecraft themselves, a price tag under $300 million per flight -- comparable to the cost of flying four astronauts on the Soyuz -- appears unlikely.

But NASA supporters say comparing costs on a seat-for-seat basis is misleading because the agency will benefit from having additional researchers aboard the space station, NASA will have more flexibility managing crew rotations and the money will go to U.S. aerospace companies and workers, not their Russian counterparts.

So far, NASA is the only member of the space station program to approve a four-year mission extension to 2024. The European Space Agency, Russia, Canada and Japan have not yet indicated whether they will follow suit.

The OIG urged NASA to "continue to solicit commitments from international partners to maintain their support for the ISS and reduce the Agency’s costs;" to identify and prioritize the medical research needed to facilitate long-duration space exploration before the station's ultimate decommissioning; and to pursue legislation to address patent license and data rights for commercial researchers.

"Failure to address these challenges in a timely manner could significantly affect the functionality, cost and value of extending the operational life of the Station until 2024," the report said.

A NASA statement released in response to the inspector general's report said the agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate "continues to solicit commitments from its international partners to improve cost sharing; to track, manage and mitigate human health risks to long-term exploration and identify and prioritize those risks that must be mitigated prior to decommissioning the space station; and to pursue legislative options that will address patent license and data rights."