I would agree with the SpaceX as being a good example of what is possible. There are issues with any government program and NASA is not immune. For example: is there pressure from certain senators for rocket designs that support local business (booster rockets)? I would guess there is a LOT of pressure to design by Senate/Representative committees instead of engineering based cost/risk/benefit tradeoffs. I would love to see the details for the various efforts: SpaceX versus NASA. I am sure that would be quite helpful in propelling discussions to new heights!
We have all heard of the $100,000 toilet seats that the gov't buys. Anyone who supplies equipment to the gov't can tell you why: It's the 500 pounds of paperwork that the gov't DEMANDS for anything you produce for them. Much of this paperwork is un-necessary and just gets locked into a vault somewhere. If the commercial world operated this way, we would all be out of a job, but the bureaucrat has an amazing ability to find ways to drive up costs through paperwork and extra layers of management.
What NASA, and much of the disgustingly inefficient government for that matter, needs to do is to follow in DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) footsteps. DARPA, almost a decade ago now, looked around and realized they were not efficient at new autonomous vehicle technology and created the DARPA Grand Challenge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA_Grand_Challenge ) to have universities compete for a prize. The schools get a great technological challenge, DARPA gets efficient, cutting-edge technology for bargain-basement prices, and all sorts of good stuff pours into the hobby world and into industry.
What NASA should do is splice up space exploration into silos of problematic challenges and let colleges and private industry compete to solve them for big prizes and ultimately contracts. If advanced education and industry were to challenge, oh, let’s say, life-support, space suits, navigation, communication, propulsion, etc., I’m sure in just a few years there would be new technologies, methods, and processes flying NASA’s way (pun intended). At a million, or even 50-million per challenge, NASA would save a fortune and schools and industry would be infused with much needed funds and direction. THAT’s how this country works. The government does nothing well but squander vast amounts of tax money producing nothing, so the last thing they should be doing is innovating and engineering the most complex devices on the planet.
Manned space becomes expensive for a wide variety of reasons, many noted by other commenters. I will through in my 2 cents, but since this is for manned space, it is now $400. The need to provide a life support system, with attendant reliability, is an expensive proposition. Still, we do this routinely on submersibles. So why the insane costs? One reason is that there is no standard set of equipment for any vehicle: everything is one-off or worse, hand crafted. (The space shuttles did not each possess a decent set of comm gear: it was traded from vehicle to vehicle. The better gear is now on the bottom of the ocean.) Secondly, no contractor has any motivation whatsoever to contain costs. The longer a project spins out, the more the contractor makes. If NASA doesn't like it, what can they do? NASA long ago lost the capability to do the job themselves: instead, NASA is 1/3 paper pushers, 1/3 time servers, and 1/3 good folk trying desperately to get something done despite the other 2/3. What that third can do is try to get contracts out and executed. Good luck! With a bloated bureaucracy at NASA, and predatory contractors, who would expect economically efficient design and manufacture of space craft? Worse, every time some boober in the federal government cuts a program, the engineering clock (unit of measure: decades) is reset to zero, and the money spent is simply wasted.
The situation would change overnight if it were found that something of real commercial value could be done or manufacture in low earth orbit: but what? The holy grail hasn't shown a gleam. What a shame: if perfect, hollow ball bearings could be manufactured at an altitude of 450 miles, Boeing would have a vehicle built in a year. We aren't there yet.
What a pity.
I think that EricMeans somewhat overstates the hostility of the space environment. Low earth orbit is not as hostile to life as the deeper ocean depths in which submarines work... and we routinely build submarines on budget and schedule. About the only thing easier in the ocean than on orbit is getting rid of heat. Otherwise, the high pressure salt water is a nasty place to be.
As far as unmanned vehicles go, they are often lots of bang for the buck. But they are not a complete substitute for putting a human being in a new place to be explored. Regrettably, insanely high standards of risk avoidance make it nearly impossible to get a man anywhere dangerous; even on the moon, the Lunar Rover was restricted to distances from the Lunar Excursion Module that were walkable.
Like others have said, costs of manned missions are high because the risks are enormous, with virtually no wiggle room for error. And anything beyond the moon, the very first opportunity being Mars, means not just days, but a year or considerably more, depending on trajectory, out there with no support from mama earth.
Still, in spite of the jaded pronouncements that the "magic is gone," can anyone imagine the fundamental transformation of the human psyche, the minute we find any evidence at all of life on some other planet, asteroid, or anything other than earth? Even just microbial life. It would be the biggest discovery in history. HUGE.
My sense is, many of the space exploration naysers are terrified of this. Not implying that manned exploration is needed, though.
When we see the latest unmanned missions going way over budget (James Webb costing several billion more than planned) it does not leave much faith in manned missions.
I think we need competition. If the Chinese planned to set up mines and colonies on the moon, or send men to Mars, you can bet we'd figure out how to do it better, cheaper and faster.
Don’t forget severe scope-creep mid-project. While working on some military robotics, 85% through the project, we were often asked to “just do some redesigns to xxx.” Last minute design changes to nearly completed product caused entire projects to be scrapped resulting in giant budget spikes. Repeat those “little requests” half-a-dozen times and it’s no wonder $1K projects end up costing $500K. I totally understand why a hammer costs the military $850. They redesigned it 50 times mid-production.
f_austin said it well. “Somehow we are willing to tolerate lives lost commuting to work, but heaven forbid if they blow up in spectacular sheet of flame.” The problem with them blowing up in spectacular sheet of flame is that they are on the government’s time-clock. It means the government is responsible for ALL liability costs, medical, reimbursements, life insurance, etc., etc. It gets unbelievably expensive FAST! Pedestrians dying on their own time is free.
The magic of 1969, which I with millions watched live, is gone. The first boot on the moon was a clear technical triumph, but the agenda was "Neener neener" while looking straight at the Soviet Union - a puerile display of chest-beating. Once we were there, the momentum was stripped away and it all stopped. Stopped dead. No more boots anywhere; we'd showed those darned Rooskis who was boss. Adolescent and damned expensive - but I'm glad we went. Now we are more mature - right?
Until a sustainable path exists for manned exploration, I disapprove of my tax dollars being spent on manned missions. To that end, we should be developing sophisticated robotics systems capable of landing and setting up infrastructure and habitation autonomously to pave the way for true colonisation. This is much cheaper in the short term, and much safer and meaningful in the medium/long term.
I think, we are underspending in this sector, as well as basic science and education, which have proven to have long term, positive impact just looking at our history.
But that does not mean, it could the budget should not be managed better.
First, congress has to stop meddling...