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Analysis: New moon shot not so costly

By FRANK SIETZEN, United Press International

WASHINGTON, June 2 (UPI) -- NASA's plan to fulfill President George W. Bush's space exploration effort suggests the agency will have to spend about $64 billion over the next 15 years to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon.

Although the price tag -- projected in fiscal year 2003 dollars -- excludes several elements of the Bush space plan, it is far less than the hundreds of billions critics of the proposal have suggested it would cost.

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The estimate is based on National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget data compiled in an analysis completed May 10 by the Congressional Research Service. A copy of the analysis, which has been seen by only a few members of Congress, was obtained by United Press International.

NASA's figures indicate the cost of designing, building and flying the new Crew Exploration Vehicle -- the spacecraft NASA is developing to supersede its aging shuttle fleet -- to the moon would total $24 billion. A companion spacecraft that could set down on the moon's surface would cost $40 billion more.

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Both figures assume the cost of a manned landing on the moon no later than 2020, and include the cost of developing rocket boosters to launch both ships and of managing the project.

Under current NASA plans, the Crew Exploration Vehicle would perform the same function as the 1960s Apollo Command Module space capsule. The lander would approximate the role filled by the Apollo Lunar Module. The cost projections do not account for the number of astronauts the craft would carry.

The costs of developing a new generation of robotic space probes, and robots capable of roaming the moon's surface along with astronauts also were not included, and CRS said NASA has not yet provided cost estimates covering the development and operation of a manned mission to Mars. The costs of the CEV include Earth-orbiting versions that may be capable of sending crews to the International Space Station.

The CRS also reviewed how NASA planned to slash its existing operations to pay for part of the proposal. Between 2005 and 2009, NASA could save $11.6 billion through internal cost reductions. Of that amount, $8.6 billion would come from cuts to the agency's human spaceflight program: $5.9 billion from terminating the Space Launch Initiative, and $1.2 billion from ending space station research that does not support the president's overall program.

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Only $1.5 billion would be saved during that period from shuttle retirement. The shuttles are to continue flying in space until 2010, and the United States would exit principle use of the space station in 2016 -- both dates were beyond the savings plan identified in the CRS study.

Other areas of savings between 2005 and 2009 included a freeze on the agency's Earth science and space science programs and cancellation of new related projects -- saving $2.7 billion. Additional savings are possible by slashing NASA's space technology research "and (deferring) institutional activities," according to space agency documents quoted in the CRS analysis.

The anticipated $11.6 billion in savings would remain in NASA's annual budgets during this period but would be transferred to the space exploration plan.

"Redirecting most of the funding from other NASA activities may quell concerns about rising deficits and neglecting other national priorities," the CRS analysis said, "but it subjects the plan to criticism that the total agency projected funding level is insufficient, and that the plan will preclude other NASA activities."

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has told Congress if the costs associated with the moon plan grow beyond NASA's budget targets, the landing dates and other specific timetables would be delayed, instead of asking for more money.

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To get Americans to the moon by 2020, the CRS analysis said, NASA would need another $53 billion to cover the distance between the $11.6 billion saved through cuts and the total $64 billion needed to build the CEV and moon lander. That additional funding would be required between 2010 and 2020 to keep the project on schedule.

CRS noted that redirecting its spending created political risks for NASA. Under the section of the analysis titled "What if the goals are not adopted?" the authors said NASA had "opened the door" to questions about the value of activities it proposes to curtail to make room for the exploration plan.

If Congress and, ultimately, the public, decide not to support the space plan, "a reasonable case" might be made to cut the $11.6 billion anyway, according to the document. For example, NASA officials have said the only reason for continued U.S. participation in the space station is to fulfill the agency's international partnership agreements and perform only research that supports the plan. If the plan falters, the CRS document asks, are the agreements that bind NASA to the station worth the estimated $6.7 billion they will require in FY 2005? Could O'Keefe produce a new rationale for station participation in the absence of the exploration agenda?

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With these and other unanswered questions surrounding the administration's space plan, the CRS analysis is the first attempt, outside NASA itself, to frame the budgetary parameters needed to achieve the new space goals. It also provides NASA with a defense against critics who have claimed the effort would require hundreds of billions or even half a trillion dollars.

Moreover, the analysis confirms what some critics of the Mars part of the plan have suggested, however -- neither NASA nor anyone else knows how much it will cost to send Americans to tread the dust of the red planet.

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Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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