Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money
The Bear knows how to play Monopoly
The last time NASA had to pony up for astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians on their venerable Soyuz spacecraft, they paid — on average — nearly $82 million per seat, for a total of six seats. That’s $490 million to get six astronauts to the ISS.
Think about that for a moment: almost half a billion dollars to ferry six people to the ISS. It would appear that our formerly communist rivals learned that capitalism can sometimes be a very profitable thing – Soyuz seats have increased 384 percent in 10 years. Having no competition allows Russia to increase prices with relative impunity.
To be fair, that amount does cover more than just taxi service to the orbiting outpost — launch services and flight training are also included in that “low, low” price. However, that’s still a heck of a lot of money to be sending to a government that may be actively operating against American institutions.
Oh, and there are those little incidents in Syria and Crimea, too. It would seem as if it’s not the best idea to rely upon “The Bear” for any longer than is necessary.
Thankfully, since 2010, NASA has been working with private companies as part of their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with the goal of accelerating development of commercial space capabilities and returning human launches to US soil.
Just a tad late
With the nearly $8 billion awarded and/or disbursed to the two primary CCDev partners, SpaceX ($3.144 billion) and Boeing ($4.82 billion), NASA hoped to return crewed launches to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) some time in 2015.
That’s right: 2015.
A quick glance at a calendar is all one needs to see that neither SpaceX nor Boeing have met that initial goal. Surely, though, it’s only a small delay and they’ll launch before the end of 2016, right? How about mid-2017?
Both Boeing and SpaceX have encountered significant delays in preparing their systems for launching NASA’s astronauts, and are both nearing the end of 2018, or even early 2019, for their first crewed flights to the ISS. In order to ensure the agency could still get their astronauts to the ISS with these continued Commercial Crew delays, NASA had to give Russia substantially more money per seat in 2017 and 2018: $76.3 million and $81.1 million, respectively.
Assuming that one/both American companies are able to begin launching crew to the ISS by the end of 2018, that means the United States would have paid Russia nearly $3.37 billion over 13 years to train and transport 64 astronauts to the ISS, averaging almost $53 million per seat over that period.
Let’s go for the cheap seats
Certainly, though, even if the Commercial Crew providers are running a little behind, they’ll be significantly cheaper…right? It depends on how one calculates the cost. According to Lisa Colloredo, Associate Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, the agency expects to pay approximately $58 million per seat, which is close to the historical average for the Soyuz seats.
If one figures three crewed flights per year (two for crew rotation and one for short duration science flights), each consisting of three NASA astronauts, that comes to 20 flights (two flights in 2018, three each in 2019-2024). Those 60 seats total $3.48 billion.
However, that per-seat price is separate from the billions already awarded to both SpaceX and Boeing as part of the CCDev program. That would mean NASA will have spent $8 billion for CCDev, plus $3.48 billion in seat costs, to send astronauts to the ISS.
But to what end? Even if crewed flights begin in early 2018 (which is unlikely), the ISS may very well stop being operated as a NASA-supported outpost as early as 2024, and may cease operating altogether by 2028.
“But Curt, the commercial companies WILL be cheaper. They just need the boost from the government to get started,” you may be thinking. Certainly SpaceX largely owes its existence to NASA’s largesse, and continues to operate primarily on the government’s dime:
“However, SpaceX receives the majority of its funding from NASA, and according to one internal NASA document, as much as 85 percent of the company’s revenues to date have come from the space agency through its multibillion dollar commercial crew and cargo contracts. Put simply, if not for NASA, SpaceX would probably be flying the Falcon 1 or 5 rocket today or might not exist at all.” — Op-ed: We love you SpaceX, and hope you reach Mars. But we need you to focus by Eric Berger, Ars Technica
So, it would appear that the U.S. taxpayer will give the commercial companies billions of dollars in taxpayer money to develop crew capability, then pay billions more to use their capability to fly astronauts to a location that might not be around much longer.
What if we kept paying Russia?
The per-seat cost to fly astronauts on Soyuz has increased, on average, 14.71 percent per year since 2009 (and only a smidge more than 11 percent if one includes 2006 through 2008). If one were to extrapolate that average increase for each year following our currently contracted seats, through the end of the current commitment to operate ISS — 2019 through 2024 — we would end with a tremendous $184.7 million per seat in 2024, totaling nearly $4.85 billion over that six year period, assuming 6 seats per year.
The totality of the contracted Soyuz seats from 2006 through 2018, plus the extrapolated seat prices with the 14.71 percent annual increases 2019 through 2024, comes to $8.22 billion. Admittedly, that’s not the sort of money one finds in their couch cushions.
Indeed, that’s quite a lot for NASA to pay for a seat on a Soyuz. But Commercial Crew has to be cheaper than that, right?
Considering the currently-awarded amount to the two main Commercial Crew partners stands at $7.964 billion — and that’s before a single astronaut takes flight — plus $58 million per seat thereafter, it’s hard to make any argument that Commercial Crew was ever about saving money.
In fact, the difference between the seats already purchased from Russia — plus the extrapolated seat prices — and ONLY the CCDev contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX is $256 million. Once five NASA astronauts have launched on Commercial Crew, that difference is erased.
I know you believe you understand what you think I said…
Yet I still think Commercial Crew is a good idea.
I’m a strong proponent of bringing human spaceflight back to the United States, and while I’m a fan of all spacefaring activities, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having a preference for the U.S.’s efforts. I do believe, though, that it’s important to understand that these Commercial Crew flights are not necessarily the cheap seats that many believe them to be.
However, as far as I’m concerned, it’s preferable to give that money to American companies, returning capabilities to the United States which should never have been lost.
In truth, I’d be OK with Commercial Crew at twice the price. Just don’t let Congress know that.