When in Doubt, Just Guess

Editor's update: I got the following from Tom Finnigan at CAGW in response to my earlier post "Pulling Facts Out Of Thin Air" which dealt with CAGW's press release "Moon, Mars Missions Not a Priority for Taxpayers":

"CAGW considers $1 trillion a reasonable educated guess for the total cost of the initiative in light of: the absence of an official cost estimate"

How anyone can seriously consider a complaint about costs from an organization who openly admits that they just guess - and then bases a press rant release on that guess - utterly escapes me. Alas, read the whole response and you'll see that they are not at all bothered by guessing - even if they then try and hold NASA to a strict accounting of every penny spent. They also have a lot of other political agendas which they decide to air (while they have your attention) as well.

"Mr. Cowing, All sarcasm aside, I'm sorry for taking so long to get back to you. We're undergoing a computer upgrade at the office and you understand how that can interfere with correspondances.

On to business, I see that the Crew Exploration Vehicle is commonly referred to as NASA's "next generation space shuttle," capable of going beyond low-Earth orbit. So I don't see how Schatz's quote is inaccurate: "The immense technological challenges involved are expected to be overcome by an agency that currently lacks the ability to launch a shuttle beyond low-earth orbit." The insinuation is, perhaps if NASA better managed the $1.5 trillion it has been given over the last 35 years, it would already have the capability to launch a shuttle outside low-Earth orbit.

CAGW President Tom Schatz claims that the cost of a mission to Mars "could cost up to $1 trillion." Implicitly, this includes the cost of a base on the moon since the President envisions going to Mars through the moon. Lacking any recent official cost estimate for the initiative, all we have to go by are the educated guesses of experts. The most recent expert to use the $1 trillion figure is Steven R. Dickman, professor of geophysics at Binghamton University.

CAGW considers $1 trillion a reasonable educated guess for the total cost of the initiative in light of: the absence of an official cost estimate; the scientific and technological unknowns that persist concerning the plan; and the federal government's (and more specifically, NASA's) history of cost overruns with projects of this magnitude. In general, the more ambitious the project and the longer the time horizon, the more dramatic the cost overrun. Considering that the moon/Mars initiative could qualify as the most ambitious project ever conceived, it is not unthinkable to predict a final price tag many times initial estimates, even beyond $1 trillion.

CAGW does not claim to know how much it will cost to implement the President's vision. The opening paragraph of the press release states that one of the primary reasons we oppose the initiative is the unresolved questions about its cost.

Side note: Even if NASA, CBO, the Bush Administration, or another government body released an updated "official" cost estimate for going to Mars, its accuracy and usefulness would be highly suspect. When Medicare was first passed in 1965, it was predicted to cost $26 billion in 2003; the actual cost was $245 billion. When Ronald Reagan first pitched the ISS, the estimate was $8 billion (final cost: $100 billion). The cost of Boston's Big Dig soared from $2.6 billion to $14.6 billion. More recently, Medicare's prescription drug benefit was estimated to cost $395 billion over ten years. Only two years after it passed Congress, its cost has now hit $700 billion over 10 years. The government is not terribly adept at estimating the costs of its own projects.

For 21 years we've watched big ticket spending items morph into boondoggles. We can say with confidence that the highest initial cost estimate will probably end up being the most accurate in this case.

I hope that answers your questions. But as long as I'm on a roll and I'm working late tonight, I'll give you the whole spiel:

Count CAGW among the many NASA critics that want the agency to forgo the costs and risks of big-ticket prestige projects and focus instead on cost-effective scientific research.

The main reason we oppose the restructuring of NASA to fit the President's initiative is that it does not square with the long-term budget situation facing the United States. The President envisions the moon mission by 2020 and the Mars mission by 2050. Yet this timeframe coincides with the impending budget nightmare that will threaten the solvency of the U.S. government itself. The baby boomers will begin retiring in the next decade, putting phenomenal pressure on the federal budget; a large chunk of our $40 trillion total debt will begin coming due. The GAO estimates that to balance the budget in 2040, the government would have to slash total spending by about 60 percent or raise taxes to 2.5 times today's level.

In such an environment, it is highly unlikely that future presidents and congresses will muster the political will to keep pouring money into the Mars adventure, even as the price spirals out of control (as it inevitably will). A far more likely outcome is that, like so many other NASA projects, this one will never get off the drawing board. The money simply won't be there. Untold millions of tax dollars will be wasted, not to mention the brainpower of some of the brightest minds in the world.

The same politicians who are waxing poetic about Man's destiny in the stars are the same politicians who do nothing about the impending entitlement crunch. CAGW will oppose any big-ticket spending item until the federal government gets its fiscal house in order. Moreover, CAGW will oppose any big-ticket NASA project until the agency learns how to manage tax dollars effectively. It is the only moral thing to do considering that every cent of the federal deficit is being hoisted onto the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.


Tom Finnigan
Media Manager"

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on June 20, 2005 9:26 PM.

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