How Much Would Ares I Cost?

How Much Would Ares I Cost?

What might seem a simple question may not have a simple answer. How much would Ares I cost per year and per flight?

That is one of the key questions arising from congressional hearings on President Obama’s new plan for NASA. The President wants to cancel the entire Constellation program, of which Ares I is part. He proposes replacing Ares I as a launch vehicle for taking astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) with commercial alternatives in part because of anticipated cost savings. Thus, the cost of Ares I on an annual basis and per launch is a critical issue.

What little information is available in the public domain seems contradictory, although some of the confusion may be caused by exactly what is being counted in the total.

In testimony to the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on Tuesday, NASA Administrator Bolden said that the Ares I would cost $4-4.5 billion a year, and $1.6 billion per flight.

The Augustine Committee report states that “When it begins operations, the Ares I and Orion would be a very expensive system for crew transport to low Earth orbit. Program estimates are that it would have a recurring cost of nearly $1 billion per flight, even with the fixed infrastructure costs being carried by Ares V. The issue is that the Orion is a very capable vehicle for exploration, but it has far more capability than needed for a taxi to low Earth orbit.” (page 90) So that estimate was not only for Ares I, but for the Orion crew capsule as well and seems more directed at Orion than Ares I. The report also said that Ares I would “cost $5-6 billion to develop assuming that all common costs are carried by the Ares V.” (emphasis in original, page 90).

At yesterday’s House Science and Technology subcommittee hearing, Doug Cooke, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, confirmed that an estimate Representative Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) said NASA provided last year – a marginal cost of $176 million per launch – was still a reasonable estimate.

Last November, NASA answered written questions from Congress about Ares I and Orion costs, a copy of which was obtained by It explained that if there was only one Ares I/Orion flight in a given year, its cost would be $919 million. That figure represents both fixed costs ($781 million) and marginal costs ($138 million) for Ares I and Orion. That would be very close to the $1 billion cited by the Augustine Committee. However, for a second flight in the same year, the marginal cost would be $138 million, close to Representative Kosmas’ number. A third flight in that year would be another $138 million, and so on. Thus, whether a particular flight costs $1 billion or $138 million depends on how many launches there are per year.

As for what is included in calculating the fixed cost of $781 million, NASA’s answer stated that it “does not include costs associated with Ground Operations, Mission Operations, EVA and Program Integration elements, which are budgeted under their respective projects.” Hence, Administrator Bolden’s estimate of $1.6 billion per flight also could be correct if all costs are counted, but that cannot be determined from information currently available in the public domain.

The origin of the $4-4.5 billion annual cost for the Ares I program cited by Administrator Bolden remains unclear. The space shuttle program costs less than that – about $3 billion annually in recent years, although that again could be an issue of an apples to oranges comparison.

Considering how crucial these questions are, it can only be hoped that the Obama Administration will uphold its promise of transparency and make all of this information public, on an apples-to-apples basis, to enable a thoughtful debate over Ares I/Orion compared with commercial alternatives.

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