No One Cares What The ISS Really Cost Any More - Including NASA

China wants to mine the moon for 'space gold', PBS NewsHour

"At a cost of more than $150 billion, the International Space Station is the most expensive object ever built. This price tag is more than double the combined costs of China's Three Gorges Dam, Boston's Big Dig and the Chunnel. But as noted by CNN, funding for the International Space Station may run out in the early 2020s."

Keith's note: $150 billion? Where did that number come from? The cost reference is a Wikipedia article that cites a 2010 post on some website called "Zidbits" (that says ISS cost $160 billion) and a 2010 SpaceReview article by some french journalist who cites old NASA budget charts and cost estimates from other news stories.The Wikipedia article has separate numbers for ISS construction and shuttle flights that simply do not jive in any mathematical way with what NASA OIG says - they overstate NASA's costs by $50 billion when compared to a more recent NASA OIG report - that's a 33% difference in the overall cost.

Wikipedia quotes these Zidbits guys as saying that the ISS is the "most expensive object ever built". Since Wikipedia is the default standard here, lets use it again to see what the U.S. Interstate Highway system cost - it is one large, interconnected object, yes? Bingo: "In 2006, the cost of construction had been estimated at about $425 billion (equivalent to $498 billion in 2014". So much for that ISS claim.

According to this article that starts off with a discussion of NASA's ISS costs and prohibition of working with China, the author "Vikram Mansharamani is a lecturer in the Program on Ethics, Politics & Economics at Yale University and a senior fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School." So ... being an obviously very smart economics kind of guy, one would assume that he uses real numbers with citations, cross references, etc. Guess again (see below). This easily findable (via Google) recent NASA OIG report gives a very clear estimate of U.S. ISS costs:

Final Memorandum, Audit of NASA's Management of International Space Station Operations and Maintenance Contracts (IG-15-021; A-14-023-00), Juy 15, 2015

"The United States has invested almost $78 billion in the International Space Station (ISS or Station) over the last 21 years, and going forward, NASA plans to spend between $3 and $4 billion annually to maintain and operate the Station, including transportation for crew and cargo. Footnote: This investment includes $46.7 billion for construction and Program costs through 2014, plus $30.7 billion for 37 supporting Space Shuttle flights, the last of which took place in July 2011."

This article by Mansharamani appears on the PBS NewsHour website as well as on Fortune magazine's website. You'd think that someone would be checking these numbers before posting these articles. Wikipedia? Really? Then again, this is the Internet - and its really not this guy's fault since crazy numbers about the cost of the ISS have been floating around the Internet for years. NASA has never thought of trying to slap them down and put the cost estimates out for all to see. Still there are real numbers to be found if you use Google.

Yet even when the NASA OIG does provide accurate cost estimates, NASA does nothing to openly promulgate these figures to the media, academia, or the public at large. If professional economists just take these Internet numbers as established fact due to their frequency of mention on the Internet, what other things about NASA are simply floating around out there that are simply inaccurate? You'd think NASA would be worried about this as they do their #JourneyToMars hype with an imaginary "notional" budget run out given that it is certain to cost much more than ISS. Guess again.

Now that he has been alerted to this Mansharamani seems to be honestly off checking things and hopefully contemplating a revision. Good for him. If only NASA spent a little more time telling its story better urban space myths like this might just be a little less common and the #JourneyToMars might just be a tad more feasible. Also, instead of having 30 year career civil servants (who have never run a business) talking as if they were experts on how business works, maybe they should invite guys like Mansharamani in to teach them about the real world.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on April 2, 2016 1:11 PM.

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