Ares I vs. Commercial Crewed–Cost, People & Infrastructure

During today’s hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Science with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as the sole witness.

Under less than easy questioning by Chairman Mollohan about why commercial human launchers would be cheaper than NASA, Administrator Bolden stated that the issue was one of supporting infrastructure. “If NASA continues with Constellation”, Administrator Bolden stated, “it keeps us in the same paradigm of having a huge infrastructure”. Our thought was that, yes, that is certainly true, but the reason for the “huge infrastructure” is crew safety. Mollohan pressed the point by asking if the savings on commercial launchers vs. Ares I was due to infrastructure. Bolden replied that commercial launch vehicle development would be cheaper than Ares I. Mollohan’s question as to the basis for such a point when NASA is pretty far along with Ares I was answered by Bolden that Ares I wasn’t that far along. Mollohan then asked if commercial vehicles were further along. And this is where Administrator Bolden got into some trouble by segueing about how the commercial launchers are already launching cargo…to which Mollohan retorted that cargo and people were not the same. Bolden mumbled something about NASA being equally far along in certifying cargo and crewed launch.

Left unanswered was why the infrastructure cost would no longer be part of a launch cost, as it is currently with Shuttle and Constellation? It is not as though Mission Control is no longer needed–Bolden stated it would be. So how will infrastructure to ensure crew safety be expensed? NASA Administrator Bolden had no answers.

Later, Rep. Aderholt, the Ranking member of the Subcommittee, seemed to back the Administrator into a corner over the cost of operating Ares I.

The issue was how much operating Ares I would cost and whether the Augustine Commission’s numbers were right. Apparently, last Spring NASA told the Augustine Committee that operating Ares I would cost $4 billion annually. Rep. Aderholt asked the NASA Administrator to clarify the cost because his staff had been given $1.3 billion for a year from NASA. Administrator Bolden testified that each Ares I would be $1.6 billion per flight. Aderholt responded that according to data from NASA, total cost for 3 flights for a year is $1.3 billion.

All of these questions, and so little answers, seem to be one of the big reasons for the near universal opposition to the proposed fiscal year 2011 NASA Budget. Repeatedly, NASA Administrator Bolden had no answers as to how much terminating Constellation would cost, how much of the space workforce infrastructure would be lost, how long it would take to pick a design for a heavy-lift vehicle, though he finally admitted that such a decision was “years down the line”, and whether the commercial human launchers would actually save money over Ares I. Yet, Administrator Bolden is asking the Appropriations and Authorization Committees to take, as Rep. Grayson said, a faith-based approach to human space flight. From what was evident today, that faith is weak or non-existent.

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