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Commercial Crew Sticker Shock For NASA

Dragon pica
Space News’ Amy Svitak covers the turbulence caused by a recent Aerospace Corporation report in Commercial Crew Market Study Generates Small Firestorm, one that tried to put a number on the future cost to NASA of commercial crewed launches. Instead, the Aerospace Corporation report, a copy of which is available on, may force an examination that commercial crew launchers can put astronauts in orbit “faster, better, cheaper” than NASA. Money quote in the Space News post,

    “According to the federally funded research group’s findings, presented Feb. 28 to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Associate Administrator Christopher Scolese, the agency’s out-of-pocket cost to ferry astronauts between Earth and the international space station aboard privately developed space taxis could exceed $100 million per seat — significantly more than the agency currently pays to fly astronauts to the orbiting outpost aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

As noted on another space site,

    This report was clearly written by people who did not want to provide NASA with a positive answer with regard to space commercialization as it relates to crew transport. The underlying assumption seems to be that all involved are starting from scratch with no experience base whatsoever. That is simply not true.

To those who found the analysis of the Constellation Program by both the Augustine Committee and Aerospace Corporation to be “challenged” at best, who felt that some on the Augustine Committee had a bias that favored commercial space, the above statement has an almost deja vu all over again feeling to it. Karma clearly has a devilish sense of humor.

Commercial space proponents need not fear; NASA’s spokesman Michael Braukus rushed to the rescue with the following statement,

    The Aerospace Corporation used their own assumptions for many of the inputs to the analysis; they did not use proprietary data inputs from companies developing commercial crew systems or from NASA, which makes their analysis of limited use.

And a trade group supporting commercial crew space development, and the subsidies behind them, followed-up with its own, very much more lengthy, statement about the Aerospace Corporation’s study.

This isn’t the first time that an Aerospace Corporation report has caused headaches for those in the human space flight program. It was Aerospace Corp. analysis that provided the underlying rationale by the Augustine Committee that the design, development, test, and evaluation (DDT&E) cost to NASA would be $3 billion for a program involving two commercial crew competitors and a NASA-provided suitable version of an exiting booster with a demonstrated track record of successful flight. In an March 23rd, 2010 Aerospace Corp. letter responding to questions raised about the above Augustine Committee conclusion by House Space Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords, the Aerospace stated,

    “The [Augustine] Committee did not ask Aerospace to independently verify the $3 billion figure. In fact, no verification could be performed given the Committee’s statement that this dollar amount was simply NASA’s portion of the total cost….Aerospace was not privy to all of the background material on the cost of commercially provided services, which was provided in closed fact finding session to the Committee.” [p. 2]

As a famous politician might once have quipped, “There Aerospace Corp. goes again.” One can only wonder if Aerospace Corporation was for commercial crew launch before it was against it.

To further assure that NASA would not be trapped by Aerospace Corporation’s report, Braukus continued,

    The Aerospace report was a completely different type of analysis than what was requested in the Authorization Act for the Commercial Market Assessment. The objective of the Aerospace work, as it was described in the report, was ‘to provide ballpark results for what it would take to make a stand alone private enterprise business case close’. Thus, NASA does not intend to incorporate any results from the Aerospace work into the Commercial Market Assessment

Obviously, NASA does not want to use the latest Aerospace Corporation report in any of its analysis of commercial crew launch. But one would have to assume that Congress, which in 2010 rejected the Administration’s and NASA’s all-commercial obsession, will certainly have its interest piqued by the Aerospace report as it finishes NASA’s forthcoming 2011 appropriations.

Why? Because the latest Aerospace Corporation report raises some serious questions. In particular, the premise by the President and others in canceling Ares I and Orion was that commercial crew launch would be faster, better and cheaper. The marginal cost of an Ares I launch that would have put 6 astronauts in low-Earth orbit was $176 million according to testimony given by NASA Exploration Systems Associate Administrator Doug Cooke on March 14th, 2010. Given that the total cost of launching a fully crewed Ares I was between $350M – $450M, for a per seat cost of $58M – $76M, the latest Aerospace numbers are far from comforting for commercial space advocates.

Instead, the Aerospace numbers track the concerns, raised by many in Congressional hearings throughout 2010, that the rosy savings promised by advocates of commercial crew launch in general, and SpaceX in particular, for putting astronauts into orbit were so optimistic as to be largely meaningless. Schedule slippage by those participating in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement of over a year and half offer further concern as to the soundness of statements of how long and how much it will cost to launch crews into low-Earth orbit. The Aerospace Corporation report hardly rebuts those concerns. If anything, it gives weight to issues raised by Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the Moon, in his March 12, 2010 appearance before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, during which he testified,

    With regard to President Obama’s 2010 [space] plan, I have yet to find a person in NASA, the Defense Department, the Air Force, the National Academies, industry, or academia that had any knowledge of the plan prior to its announcement. Rumors abound that neither the NASA Administrator nor the President‟s Science and Technology Advisor were knowledgeable about the plan. Lack of review normally guarantees that there will be overlooked requirements and unwelcome consequences. How could such a chain of events happen? A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the President that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program. I believe the President was poorly advised.

In the meantime, if there is any good news, it is that the Russians can go ahead and renegotiate their current price of $63 million per seat that they charge NASA for a ride on Soyuz. As they are saying in Moscow, Спасибо большое! (Russian for “Big Thanks!”)

2 comments to Commercial Crew Sticker Shock For NASA

  • Borecrawler

    I think the real result of this Aerospace study will be to perpetuate the idea that space launching is unaffordable. I really have to wonder what they are hoping to gain from this. I have always believed that the commercial people were overstating their savings, but on the other hand, these studies (like Augustine) have overblown the cost. The real culture of space companies has, of necessity, become leaner and leaner, as they have been forced to work with budget shortfalls. The reality is that whatever they produce (whether commercially or government built), it will be much less expensive per pound than the shuttle, or whatever the studies say. It has to be, or nobody will fund it! My bet for the cheapest LEO solution is on Liberty.

  • Mr. Jimbo

    The Aerospace study was designed to refine a modeling tool for evaluating commercial crew plans. It wasn’t a full study in itself. That’s explained by the Aerospace Corporation in a document released on Thursday.