Howard McCurdy and Roger Launius propose a method for assessing the financial burden that space expeditions impose on the national economy. The method calculates the cost of the program as a proportion of the gross domestic product in the year the expedition is approved. Excerpted from their forthcoming book on NASA Spaceflight: A History of Innovation by Launius and McCurdy, to be published in late 2017 by Palgrave Macmillan.
Assessing financial burden in space exploration presents many challenges. We suggest as a measure of burden the total program cost, in real year dollars, as a share of national wealth in the year that the program begins. Project Apollo cost $25.4 billion in real-year dollars, a generally accepted figure that maintains itself even under different methods of calculation. The U.S. GDP in 1961, when President Kennedy initiated the effort, stood at a modest $563 billion. Project Apollo thus represented a level of commitment equal to 4.5 percent of that year’s Gross Domestic Product. We multiply the figure by 10 to represent its share in a GDP standardized to $1,000. The number for Project Apollo thus translates to 45. The index represents a measure of relative burden. The higher the number, the heavier a burden the society is asked to bear.
The  Space Task Group proposal represented much more. By 1969, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product had grown to $1,020 billion – the first trillion-dollar economy in the world. Continued spending at Apollo program levels for seventeen years would make available for all civil space activities about $240 billion. That would provide at least $170 billion for a human space flight program. Based on a $1 trillion economy, this sum extrapolates to an index of 167 – nearly four times the burden of Project Apollo.
Subsequent analysis suggests that the figure proposed by the Space Task Group would have been insufficient to accomplish its various goals. A 1989 cost analyst suggests what those larger figures might be. NASA cost analysts provided figures for what was known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). Like the 1969 proposal, the 1989 initiative returned humans to the Moon and sent more to Mars. Program advocates spread the expense over thirty-five years. NASA analysts produced one of the most carefully drawn estimates of a Moon-Mars undertaking, with adequate reserves, additive costs, and sufficient operational expenses. The initiative, the estimators concluded, would cost between $471 and $541 billion. Adjusting the annual outlays for actual and expected inflation through 2025 for the larger number produces a grand sum of approximately $965 billion. Around Washington, D.C., the proposal acquired a reputation as a trillion dollar initiative.
Using the comparative index, the NASA response to the Space Exploration Initiative represented an index rising to 171.
In public discourse, the cost of the space shuttle program is often exaggerated. The actual numbers are severe enough. In real year dollars, the shuttle program consumed slightly more than $116 billion, an index (relative to 1972 GDP) of 91. Had anyone known in 1972 that the shuttle program would impose a burden on the U.S. space program roughly twice that of Project Apollo, the shuttle in its produced configuration would have never been approved.
Having endured the disappointment of the space shuttle, public officials repeated the experience. NASA spacecraft engineers possessed prior experience with orbital facilities, notably the Skylab workshop. By building on previously developed equipment, flight engineers [for Skylab] were able to create a precursor space station with as much pressurized volume as a three-bedroom apartment at a cost of just over $2 billion, an index of 2.
NASA officials did not want to recreate Skylab; they wanted to build something more grandiose. Grandiose it was – a space station that topped $100 billion. By agreeing to proceed with a large orbiting space station in 1984, the U.S. essentially agreed to commit $120 billion of its own funds over the next 40 years.
The shuttle/station experience effectively confined humans to low-Earth orbit for forty years. The $120 billion figure for station created a burden of 30 points based on the 1984 approval year. As noted earlier, the space shuttle imposed a burden equal to 91. Together, station-shuttle imposed a burden on the U.S. government two and one-half times that of Project Apollo, relative to overall national wealth at their dates of approval.
Table 1: Relative Burden of Major U.S. Space Programs Program Index Measure
Space Exploration Initiative (1989) 171
Space Task Group (1969) 167
Space Shuttle (1972) 91
Project Apollo (1961) 45
International Space Station (1984) 30
The index represents the total program cost of the undertaking as a percentage of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product in the year that officials approved the initiative – or in the case of unapproved programs, the year in which advocates proposed the undertaking. The resulting number is increased by a factor of ten to create a number based on a fixed GDP of 1000.
Space Exploration Initiative: $965/$5,658 billion; Space Task Group: $170/$1,020 billion; Space Shuttle: $116/$1,284 billion; Project Apollo: $25.3/$563 billion; International Space Station: $120/$4,041 billion.