There is a new Mars program—the Evolvable Mars Campaign—circulating secretly within NASA and it’s unaffordable, says the Space Development Steering Committee’s Gerald Black, an Apollo program rocket scientist and GE aircraft engine specialist. But Black is not alone. An aerospace specialist from deep within the bowels of NASA agrees. He agrees in his role as a private citizen, not as a spokesman for NASA.
Here’s the story. In a press release put out by the Space Development Steering Committee in October, Black pointed out that NASA is touting two vehicles for its Mars Program: the Orion capsule and the rocket known as the Space Launch System. Said Black, the Orion and the SLS are antique, unsafe, and unaffordable. What’s worse, they are so vastly overpriced that they leave no funding for the roughly twenty other components a Mars program would require. Concluded Black, “If NASA uses its traditional cost-plus contracts for all the other yet to be developed hardware components, the cost of the Evolvable Mars Campaign will rocket into the stratosphere.”
Sounds like an exaggeration, right? Enter Edgar Zapata, an analyst at Kennedy Space Center who works for NASA and the Air Force. Zapata’s specialization? Launcher life cycle cost modeling to take us toward low cost access to space. In his capacity as a private individual, Zapata posted a LinkedIn message saying that he agrees with Black. Wholeheartedly.
Stated Zapata, “The observation about ‘If NASA uses its traditional cost-plus contracts for all the other yet to be developed hardware components, the cost of the Evolvable Mars Campaign will rocket into the stratosphere.’ is absolutely correct,”
Zapata explained his reasoning like this:
As a useful mental model, Orion is heading toward a $22 billion total development cost (in 2015 dollars) if completed in 2022. Now list some basic elements of a Mars mission –putting aside for now stages and such for leaving Earth or its vicinity.
These elements would be an in-space habitat, a Mars lander (consisting of descent and ascent stages), a surface habitat on Mars, a Mars rover, logistics spacecraft (pressurized and not), and assorted equipment and variations (from ISRU on the ascent stage, or apart, to tunnels and other modules).
All the elements are very much human related “spacecraft-like” things, much akin to Orion. That is – again a gedanken experiment here – as we saw with Apollo landers, these can be as expensive as the “matching” Apollo spacecraft in the set. Repeat this for the many Mars elements, using the Orion (or any cost-plus) data in-hand as a starting point, and you’ll quickly end up at a tally that in no way ever adds up to any foreseeable NASA budget availability in the human spaceflight line. We need to take these “22’s” ($22 billion) and turn them into “2.2’s”-across the board. Then we have a chance to do this right.
How do you lower the cost of Mars program components from $22 billion apiece to $2.2 billion? You get rid of military style cost plus purchasing and you buy your Mars components from companies like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Sierra Nevada, and Moon Express. At a fixed cost. You use competitive bidding. And, most important, you stop putting up super-expensive rockets then throwing them away after one use. Instead, you turn to next-generation, high quality, low price reusable rockets that can take off, land, and take off again the way passenger and cargo planes do. You build every component of your Mars program to be used over and over again. You ditch a word that NASA and the space military industrial complex companies have thrown around for years with pride: expendable. And you go for reusability.