WASHINGTON -- The rocket and capsule that NASA is proposing to return astronauts to the moon would fly just twice in the next 10 years and cost as much as $38 billion, according to internal NASA documents obtained by The Orlando Sentinel.
The money would pay for a new heavy-lift rocket and Apollo-like crew capsule that eventually could take astronauts to the moon and beyond. But it would not be enough to pay for a lunar landing -- or for more than one manned test flight, in 2021.
That timeline and price tag could pose serious problems for supporters of the new spacecraft, which is being built from recycled parts of the shuttle and the now-defunct Constellation moon program.
It effectively means that it will take the U.S. manned-space program more than 50 years -- if ever -- to duplicate its 1969 landing on the moon.
That is certain to infuriate NASA supporters in Congress, who last year ordered NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket by December 2016 -- a deadline the agency says it can't meet. And it may well convince others that there's no good reason not to slash NASA's budget as part of a recent deal to cut federal spending by at least $2.1 trillion over 10 years.
"It's easier to balance the budget by going after the big numbers rather than the little numbers," said Howard McCurdy, a space expert at American University. He said the new rocket might be spared if NASA keeps the program within its budget -- a big if considering NASA's past history of significant cost overruns.
"That's what is going to get them (NASA officials) in trouble, if they come back hat in hand asking for money," McCurdy said.
According to preliminary NASA estimates, it would cost between $17 billion and $22 billion to ready the new rocket and Orion capsule for a test flight in December 2017 that would put an unmanned capsule into a lunar orbit. An additional $12 billion to $16 billion would be needed to launch the first crew on a lunar flyby in August 2021.
Asked for comment Friday, NASA had not issued a statement by 6 p.m. EDT.
The preliminary estimate is NASA's first step to forecast the cost of the fledgling program.
The agency also has contracted with Booz Allen Hamilton, a Virginia consulting firm, to conduct an independent assessment.
The firm's findings are expected in mid-August, and even agency insiders expect Booz Allen Hamilton to come back with a higher price tag given NASA's history of lowballing initial cost estimates.
Since 1990, the agency has been classified as "high risk" for cost overruns by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, and studies of NASA programs by the Congressional Budget Office found overruns of 50 percent or more were routine.
The high cost and 10-year schedule comes despite a 2010 agreement by Congress and the White House that all but requires NASA to rely on existing shuttle parts and remnants of the now-defunct Constellation moon program, which cost taxpayers $13.1 billion through April without producing a flyable rocket or capsule. The intent was to get the rocket built quickly and comparatively cheaply.
While NASA has not officially announced a design, internal NASA documents show the agency intends to replicate much of the shuttle design. retaining the shuttle's orange fuel tank and side-mounted boosters. The plane-like orbiter would be replaced by the Orion capsule, left over from the Constellation program, atop the tank.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a frequent NASA critic, said the money would be better spent by investing in commercial rocket companies or converting existing military rockets -- rather than recycling equipment from NASA's scrap yard.
NASA has been working to jump start a commercial space industry that would ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station this decade.
And while the rockets and capsules are smaller and less complex than would be required to go to the moon, initial cost estimates for commercial spaceflight appear much lower than NASA's numbers..