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NASA just revealed how much the pandemic has cost them, and it’s insane

Published Apr 4th, 2021 9:02AM EDT
nasa pandemic cost
Image: SpaceX

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The coronavirus pandemic set everyone back in one way or another. We’ve put our lives on hold for a year or more just waiting for a vaccine to be developed, tested, and rolled out. On a personal level, we’ve lost time with friends and family and lost out on a year’s worth of social experiences, vacations, and a lot of good times. Companies and other organizations have lost money and a lot of it. NASA, which continued its various projects to the best of its ability why trying to ensure that staff remained virus-free, lost a whole lot of money as well, and a new report reveals exactly how much.

As SpaceNews reports, the report released this week (PDF) by the NASA Office of Inspector General reveals the price tag for the various setbacks the agency has already endured as well as its expected impacts in the immediate future. The cost? A whopping $3 billion. Yes, that’s billion with a “b.” Yikes.

The report provides a detailed breakdown of the various projects and programs that NASA is currently working on and how much of an impact the pandemic has had on them. For example, the Commercial Crew Program has seen “minimal” impact from the pandemic, and SpaceX was still able to launch astronauts to the International Space Station not once but twice in 2020, which was great. On the other hand, projects like the James Webb Space Telescope, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, and the Space Launch System all endured “significant” impacts.

A total of $1.6 billion of the roughly $3 billion in losses can be attributed to setbacks in the 30 “major programs and projects” listed in the review. The memo goes on to list every program/project along with an estimated cost impact that is attributed to the pandemic. For example, costs associated with the International Space Station were $1.8 million higher in FY2020 than they would have otherwise been. The agency believes a total of $18.9 million in future costs will also be related to the pandemic.

Other programs — especially those still in development — have endured much more significant cost setbacks. The Space Launch System, for instance, absorbed $8 million in associated costs in FY2020, but will ultimately see a cost overrun of approximately $355 million due to the pandemic. That’s a pretty sizable chunk of the roughly $11 billion total lifetime cost of the program.

From a public-facing perspective, what is most costly for NASA is time. So many programs have experienced delays related to the pandemic that expected launch dates and other timelines have been severely disrupted. There’s nothing the space agency could have done differently, of course, and it was already forced to have its engineers and scientists manage missions like the Curiosity rover from their own homes to protect them from the health crisis.

Going forward, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that these pandemic-related cost estimates are higher than the true costs and that these awe-inspiring missions will get back on track sooner rather than later.