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. The Griffin Space Fantasy

NASA boss Mike Griffin says we can do three Apollo-scale projects over the next 50 years without increasing the NASA budget. It sounds too good to be true - and it is. Griffin's analysis of NASA's past relies on questionable economics and his vision of the future includes political and technical impossibilities.
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu HI (SPX) May 05, 2007
The March 14 2007 issue of Aviation Week contained an article by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin which apparently is the most detailed statement yet of his long-range plans.

In this article and related press interviews, Griffin makes a case that NASA is not really as underfunded as many critics say, and that the US can afford three major space projects on the scale of Project Apollo over the next 50 years without major budget increases.

Specifically, he argues that a steady budget of about 14 billion FY2000 dollars per year can comfortably accommodate the Moon landing, Moon base, and Mars landing programs proposed by President Bush in February 2004.

There has been surprisingly little discussion of this key article. Possibly many space advocates suspect that the news is too good to be true. After all, on March 16, Griffin appeared in person on Capitol Hill to argue for a major increase in NASA funding of exactly the kind he had claimed was unnecessary in this article. This contradiction should have tipped us all off that the AvWeek article is not a serious analysis.

A Short Course in Griffinomics
A fundamental basis of Griffin's argument is his claim that the current NASA budget is not really much lower in real purchasing power that those during the "Golden Years" of the Apollo era. In order to reach this conclusion, Griffin makes some deceptive calculations using a dubious inflation index.

Now one might think that inflation is inflation, but there are many inflation rates in use. The inflation figures one sees in the news media are a specific index called the "Consumer Price Index" which is calculated by the Labor Department using a "market basket" of commodities that the average American supposedly purchases.

But NASA purchases a very different market basket of goods and services that the typical individual, and over the years this market basket has changed in different ways than the CPI market basket.

When NASA was created in 1958 most of the stuff your parents bought at Sears was made in the USA by unionized blue-collar labor. Imports were rare because the rest of the world was still recovering from World War II. In 2007 most of the stuff you buy at Wal-Mart is made in highly automated factories or Asian sweatshops. The raw materials come from giant mechanized mines or synthesis plants, if they are not recycled scrap. Labor costs and material costs for all consumer goods are lower in real terms than they were in 1958. Food grains have gotten so cheap we are using them to fuel our cars.

On the other hand, NASA is still buying complex hardware that is designed by salaried engineers and hand-crafted on a piecework basis by highly paid unionized technicians. There is still virtually no automation or mass production in the space industry, due to the extremely low production volume between model changes. Trained personnel have become much more expensive relative to ordinary consumer goods.

NASA HQ has a group of economists to calculate its own private inflation index, in order to project the costs of projects more accurately. This group (Code BC) generates the "NASA New Start Index" which is a much more accurate measure of relative costs over time for space projects.

Another inflation index is the called the "GDP Deflator" or "GDP Price Index", which is generated by OMB. The function of this agency is to prepare budgets which the Administration presents to Congress, and it is in the interest of every Administration and every Congress to minimize the projected future costs of federal programs. Not surprisingly, the GDP Price Index usually is much lower than the CPI.

The inflation factor over the first 41 years of NASA's existence (FY1959-FY2000) is 4.82 by the GDP Price Index, 5.92 by the Consumer Price Index, and a whopping 8.35 by the NASA New Start Index. Of course, Griffin chose the lowest inflation index for his analysis. He also chose FY2000 as his base year, which is four years before the Vision for Space Exploration was announced (i.e. practically ancient history).

I have constructed a more accurate budget history by using the NASA New Start Index and projecting ahead to the current fiscal year:

Table 1: Inflation-Corrected NASA Budgets
Budget Then-Year FY2000 $B FY2007 Year $B GDPI NNSI NNSI ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- 1964 5.1 23 35 41 1975 3.3 9 12 14 1985 7.7 11 13 15 1992 14.7 17 18 21 2000 14.5 14.5 14.5 17

From Table 1 we can see that the Apollo-era NASA budgets in FY2000 dollars were actually about 50% larger than Griffin claims they were. In current dollars, the Apollo funding peak in 1964-65 was over $40B per year. This number puts in proper perspective the current intense debate over whether NASA should get $17.3B or $17.8B in FY2008.

The later funding profiles under these assumed inflation rates are also of interest. Griffin's Figure 1 shows real funding doubling between the all-time low of 1975 to the pre-Clinton peak in 1992. Actually, NASA buying power rose about 50% during the 1980s and the Clinton Administration's cuts after 1992 brought it back to a current level only about 20% larger than the lean years.

To further obscure the size of the Apollo funding spike, Griffin then presents two bar graphs which are textbook examples of deception. He projects the current budget ahead as a flat line to 2063, and chooses to integrate over long intervals. Together these graphical tricks create the impression that NASA's budget has been essentially stable.

The 2022 Flight Plan

Next, Griffin lays out a proposed lunar exploration program:

    For the sake of argument and nothing more, let us say that in 2022 we will begin a sustained lunar program of exploration and development consisting of three manned missions (two outpost crew rotations and one sortie) and one unmanned cargo mission per year, utilizing three Orion/Ares I vehicles and four Ares V launches. Present projections assume a cargo capacity of six metric tons on a lander carrying four crew members, and twenty metric tons on a cargo lander, at a marginal cost of about $750 million for a human mission and $525 million for a cargo mission. The marginal cost in Fiscal 2000 dollars for this nominal lunar program will thus be about $3 billion.

    These marginal costs do not include an allocation of the fixed costs of production and operations which will be assigned to each flight. Let us assume a fixed-cost support base of $1 billion annually, about a third of that for the Shuttle today, equivalent to roughly 6,000 full-time employees at average Fiscal 2000 labor rates. We should all work to make it much less, but this is an appropriately conservative estimate for the present. This yields a sustained lunar program costing no more than $4 billion/year, leaving $4.8 billion annually in the human spaceflight account to be applied to new development priorities.

The estimated costs of this program are far too low. Later on in the same article, Griffin states that an Apollo moon landing cost about $2.4B using Griffinomics which equates to $3.6B in reality. And the 1.5-launch Constellation plan promises to make Apollo look like a bottle rocket in terms of incremental cost per flight. Just look at the number and type of rocket engines employed on Ares I+V:

Table 2: Major Propulsion Elements
Single Missions | FY2022 Engine Class Apollo Shuttle Orion | Total Small Cryo 0 0 4xRL-10 | 16xRL-10 Medium Cryo 6xJ-2 0 2xJ-2X | 7xJ-2X Large Cryo 0 3xSSME 5xRS-68 | 20xRS-68 Kerosene 5xF-1 0 0 | 0 SRB Segments - 8 15 | 55

Several depressing facts are evident from this comparison. Each Orion Moon mission will consume 11 complex pump-fed liquid engines, just like an Apollo mission, plus almost enough SRB segments to support two Shuttle launches. Even worse, Orion uses four different engine models, in place of only two in the Apollo and Shuttle programs.

Column 5 of Table 2 sums up the engine production requirements of Griffin's projected Moon program of the 2020s. SRB segments must be repaired and recast at a rate equivalent to 6.8 Shuttle launches per year. This launch rate was achieved in the FY91-97 period, when the Shuttle was practically the only program at NASA's manned flight centers. Since 1998 the program has strained to launch 4 or 5 times per year because of the budget and personnel demands of the parallel ISS project.

Similarly, Griffin expects to throw away 43 liquid engines per year, equivalent to 4 Saturn V flights. This was achieved in FY1969 but the average Saturn V launch rate was only 2/yr. All documents produced by the Constellation project office envisage no more than 2 Ares V and 2 Ares I launches per year.

Griffin's estimate of the fixed costs is even more unlikely. Is it really possible to operate Ares I, Ares V, and the various Orion spacecraft with one-third the facilities and staff used for Shuttle alone? Griffin has made impassioned speeches about the need to reduce staffing on Orion to ELLV or even Trident II levels, but he has never explained how this could be accomplished.

And will Congress allow major cuts in staffing, given that they regard NASA as a jobs program? Griffin has bent the current Ares I booster into an unnatural shape to maintain current Shuttle jobs and constantly talks about the need to maintain existing skill sets and staff. How can he logically assume that the NASA Administrator of 2022 will have the freedom to economize that he himself so obviously doesn't have?

Alternate Fantasy History

At the end of his article, Griffin describes a possible post-1971 NASA program using the Apollo/Saturn technology instead of the Shuttle. This sort of alternate history speculation is common among space buffs (several novels have explored this theme). But Griffin's plan is more grandiose than most.

    Let's assume that we had kept flying with the systems we had at the time, that we had continued to execute two manned Apollo lunar missions every year, as was done in 1971-72. This would have cost about $4.8 billion annually in Fiscal 2000 dollars.

    Further, let us assume that we had established a continuing program of space station activities in Earth orbit, built on the Apollo CSM, Saturn I-B, and Skylab systems. Four crew rotation launches per year, plus a new Skylab cluster every five years to augment or replace existing modules, would have cost about $1.5 billion/year. This entire program of six manned flights per year, two of them to the Moon, would have cost about $6.3 billion annually in Fiscal 2000 dollars. The average annual NASA budget in the 15 difficult years from 1974-88 was $10.5 billion; with 60% of it allocated to human spaceflight, there would have been sufficient funding to continue a stable program of lunar exploration as well as the development of Earth orbital infrastructure. I suggest that this would have been a better strategic alternative than the choices that were in fact made, almost 40 years ago.

The basis of the Griffin plan is the following table which purports to convert the costs of specific Apollo program elements into FY2000 dollars:

Table 3: Claimed Incremental Costs of Apollo Hardware ($M)
Element Then FY2000 Apollo CSM 50 160 Apollo LM 120 400 Apollo Mission 720 2400 Saturn I-B 35 120 Saturn V 325 1100 Skylab Cluster 275 925

The then-year numbers are much higher than those in many books on Apollo; apparently Griffin has allowed for salaries and overheads that were excluded from project budgets in the 1960s. The GDPI inflation factor used seems to be only about 3.3, which is obviously wrong. According to the Excel file referenced by Griffin, this corresponds to a "real year" of FY1973, long after most Apollo/Skylab hardware was bought. I have corrected Griffin's table using the correct NNSI inflation rate and a more realistic base year of FY1970:

Table 4: Actual Incremental Costs of Apollo Hardware ($M)
Element Then FY2000 FY2008 Apollo CSM 50 252 300 Apollo LM 120 605 722 Apollo Mission 720 3625 4330 Saturn I-B 35 176 210 Saturn V 325 1636 1954 Skylab Cluster 275 1384 1653

These corrected figures are very sobering, even to a confirmed Shuttle-basher like me. Griffin says that the Shuttle is unaffordable at ~$1.2B per flight, but an Apollo mission cost at least three times as much. If we plug these real FY2000 numbers into Griffin's proposed 1970s flight program, the total cost is well in excess of the total NASA budget, not the ~60% he claims. It would not have been possible to fund both Apollo and Skylab during the lean years.

Is the Administrator Really Naked?
One has to ask: Is this really what Mike Griffin sees when he looks to the future? Is he really using these fantastic cost estimates in his planning? It seems unlikely. He has seven college degrees and a staff that could tell him very precisely what inflation factors he should be using.

The only possible explanation is that this article is just a piece of propaganda intended to boost the failing support for the Vision for Space Exploration in the pro-space community. This is fully consistent with Griffin's previous experience in pseudo-programs like SDI, DC-X, and X-33 which were mostly publicity exercises.

A bigger question is: why do so many space cadets still worship Griffin and believe everything he says, without the normal level of skepticism directed at the statements and actions of political appointees? The answer is that Griffin is a master at divining what we want to hear and telling us exactly that. We are so accustomed to seeing bland organization men at the helm of NASA that we have been blinded by the sheer novelty of an Administrator who shares our romantic vision of space. We need to open our eyes and demand some hard-nosed rational planning to back up that vision.

Jeffrey F. Bell is a former space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.




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