Space Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics

Paint falling off of Falcon 9

In an article in the L.A. Times, A lot is riding on SpaceX rocket, it was reported,

“The average space shuttle flight costs about $1 billion, he said. Flights from SpaceX will run around $100 million.”

Let’s go through those numbers a bit.

According to the Augustine Committee’s Final Report, p. 50, the fixed costs of the Shuttle program are $1.5B yearly and include 90% of the cost of running Kennedy Space Center, the engine test facility at Stennis Space Center, Mission Control at Johnson Space Center, and the Michoud facility in Louisiana. Certainly, SpaceX and the other commercial groups hoping to launch humans into low-earth orbit for ISS missions will have to bear some of the infrastructure costs that the Shuttle program now does.

We’re pretty sure that if NASA does fly astronauts aboard any rocket, Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control (MCC) participation will be required. Further, processing of a human spacecraft is going to involve Kennedy Space Center. In both cases, it makes no sense for each commercial launch company to build its own infrastructure to replace that of NASA’s. Not that the current Mission Control and Kennedy Space Center casts expensed under Shuttle will be born by the commercial launchers–there will be cut-backs that will lower those numbers. As to how the remaining infrastructure of Stennis and Michoud, currently paid-for by the Shuttle program, will be supported, that is something that neither NASA leader has clarified.

SpaceX does not have a great record in estimating down-stream launch costs. Just looking at the growth in the estimates for a Falcon 1 launch. In 2005, SpaceX said a Falcon 1 launch would cost $5.9 million. By 2009, that number had grown to $7 million, an increase of 18%. But the pricing growth wasn’t over last year. In February 2010, SpaceX priced a Falcon 1 launch at $8.9 million, a 50% growth over the 2005 number.

So, we doubt very much that SpaceX is going to be launching astronauts for anywhere near $100 million. Using the Falcon 1 pricing history, we would guess that at Falcon 9 launch will cost $150 million. And this is before the “NASA Cost” will be assessed, that is the cost for Mission Control and Kennedy Space Center support. And that cost is unknown.

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