With significant economic implications for Florida’s Space Coast, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last month released a financial audit of NASA’s moonshot program, Artemis, and the conclusion was demoralizing. Short version: the space agency’s fantastical dream of building long-lasting lunar infrastructure both on the surface and in orbit around the moon is downright “unaffordable”. Period. Full stop.
Notably, the wording of that conclusion didn’t originate with the GAO auditors. It came from “senior NASA officials,” who admitted there simply isn’t enough money to pay for NASA’s Artemis dreams.
But don’t worry, because NASA has a plan to fix all that under the leadership of Spaceman Bill Nelson, the former U.S. Senator from Florida, who now serves as NASA Administrator. His plan is simple, as you might expect from a man who spent most of his entire 40-year career in Congress, where they spend money like it grows on trees. Nelson’s plan was to slash the cost of its $2.5 billion per copy Space Launch System rockets by 50 percent through a combination of fuzzy math, some chewing gum, and a whole lot of hope that maybe Boeing and Northrop Grumman would give NASA a “friends and family discount.”
Turns out, NASA’s own Office of the Inspector General isn’t playing along. Of course, sifting through an auditor’s report isn’t exactly riveting reading, but we did it so you don’t have to. Spoiler alert: Nelson’s cost savings plan is more fictional than a sci-fi blockbuster and about as realistic as finding a copy of a balanced federal budget in the U.S. Capitol cafeteria. After all the number crunching, the OIG report basically said, “Houston, we have a problem, and it’s not just a technical glitch; it’s a full-on fantasy of fiscal proportions.” Brace for impact because that 50 percent cost reduction that Nelson dreamed of is grounded while the price tag of at least $2.5 billion per launch remains stranded in orbit for at least the next ten launches.”
Nelson’s Fuzzy Math
What’s a spaceman like Nelson to do? His own beloved Congress is breathing down his neck, with those stingy Republicans in control of the U.S. House only giving him $25 billion for 2024 when he asked for $27 billion. Then he’s got his own “senior leaders” telling the congressional auditors that NASA can’t even afford its own rocket. And when he comes up with a game plan to make it all work, his own inspector general tells him the cost savings plan is like trying to reach Mars with a paper airplane…ambitious but utterly disconnected from the laws of reality.
Yet if anyone can save the Artemis program with some good old-fashioned Capitol Hill math, it’s Nelson. After all, he has years of experience supporting bills with enough pork to make a piggy bank blush. Why worry about “unaffordable” when you’ve spent 40 years ignoring affordability altogether?
Part of Nelson’s original plan was to broaden the user base for the Space Launch System. According to NASA, they thought that finding additional customers who could also use their massive new rocket would allow NASA’s suppliers to “buy in bulk” and reach economies of scale that would lower the overall costs for each rocket. But it turns out finding a customer who needs a rocket big enough to fling 77 tons of stuff into space – and can afford the ticket – is harder than finding bipartisan agreement in Congress.
Space Coast implications
One of the major gripes of the GAO audit is that NASA doesn’t really have a grasp on how much certain aspects of the program actually cost, as they weren’t broken out in a transparent way. Part of the challenge, of course, is that some costs overlap other NASA programs that aren’t related to Artemis. But even though we don’t have a complete picture of the fiscal impact of the moonshot program, it’s still undoubtedly an economic booster for Florida’s Space Coast and for a wide range of suppliers located around the nation.
A recent report pegged NASA’s Kennedy Space Center workforce at well over 12,000 people, with another 27,000 directly linked to the Space Center’s existence. Those jobs alone amount to nearly $3 billion in labor income, with another $5.25 billion in economic impact on the region. The Artemis program will sustain that workforce over the next decade, so it’s important for Florida that NASA find a way to keep the program solvent.
Artemis already plays a huge role in Florida’s economic engine, and since returning humans to the moon remains a high national priority, even among budget-hawk Republicans in Congress, it will remain a critical driver of the region’s economy. But the fact remains that if the agency can’t keep costs in check with Nelson running the show, then Artemis could end up being an embarrassment rather than another feather in NASA’s cap like its predecessor program, Apollo.
Can Nelson moonwalk his way out of this one?
Here’s where Nelson’s long career as a financial alchemist could shine. Can he turn the space dust of these stark audits into budgetary gold? The man has been doing money magic tricks long before David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear. In a world where Medicare for All and Green New Deals are discussed with a straight face, why not a budget-friendly rocket to the moon?
While the rest of us are grappling with numbers that are more twisted than a politician’s campaign promise, Nelson knows better than most how to navigate the halls of Congress, which offices to visit, which votes he needs to make the math work, regardless of what the auditors say. If anyone can pull a fiscal rabbit out of his astronaut helmet, it’s Spaceman Bill Nelson. But to do it, he might have to break NASA of its habit of writing blank checks to major aerospace companies and start allowing more competition from commercial upstarts like SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which are lingering on the outskirts of the Artemis program like a third-party candidate trying to pick off a few votes.
As America targets a return to the moon sometime next year and a human landing on Mars by 2040, Nelson’s tenure at NASA could either be a giant lunar leap or an asteroid-sized bust. We’ve been hard on Nelson here at the Capitolist for years, but if there’s anyone who can turn this moonshot into a smooth landing, armed with nothing but optimism and a calculator that only adds, it’s him. Welcome to NASA’s latest mission: not just reaching for the stars, but somehow making the math work along the way.