In testimony to Congress Wednesday, Elon Musk described how allowing SpaceX to compete as a military launch provider would significantly lower costs.


Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

The competition heats up: In testimony to Congress Wednesday, Elon Musk described how allowing SpaceX to compete as a military launch provider would significantly lower costs.

[Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama)] said the Air Force EELV contracts require compliance with complex oversight and accounting practices that add costs to the program. As a result, he suggested comparing the cost of a SpaceX Falcon 9 and a ULA Atlas or Delta was comparing apples and oranges.

Musk agreed “there is additional cost for U.S. government missions due to the mission assurance process.” And he said SpaceX’s costs for launching a military mission would be 50 percent higher than for a purely commercial launch. Even so, he said, SpaceX could provide a Falcon 9 rocket for around $90 million as opposed to nearly $400 million for a ULA launcher. “Even when you add the Air Force overhead, there’s still a huge difference,” he said. [emphasis mine]

The only reason that Congress is against eliminating the military launch monopoly given to ULA and allowing SpaceX to compete is because the monopoly feeds a lot of pork to the districts of certain but powerful legislators like Shelby.

ULA and Shelby are losing the argument however. The cost differences are too high, and SpaceX has proven that it can do the job efficiently and effectively. Eventually the monopoly will die, and the sooner the better.

Share

14 comments

  • Tim M

    Musk and Spacex will prevail in this break up of ULA monopoly.
    This was a GOOD day for Spacex.
    Musk is very difficult to win an argument with. Esp about space transportation and costs!!
    Job well done, Elon!

  • Kelly Starks

    Allowing SpaceX to compete as a NASA launch provider, raised NASA’s cost per ton to the ISS significantly. Competition between Boeing and L/M for military launch’s was driving up costs (just like GE and P&W competing for fighter jet engine business doubled cost per engine in the ’80’s). So like he frequently does, Musk says nonsense with a very convincing and confident manor.

  • wodun

    What other launchers are you comparing SpaceX with?

  • Tim M

    But what does ISS have to do w/ Air Force launches?
    Stop hating dude!

  • Pzatchok

    I work for a company that provides parts for all those aerospace companies.

    And I can tell you for a fact that there is no difference in the prices we charge a civilian company vs. a military company. Once we qualified to manufacture aerospace components everyones costs went up a little.

    The difference in in the final source. We sell to Lockheed. Lockheed does a few more tests to the parts and ‘certifies’ them good for the military or government. Then they tack on a HUGE markup and make the sale. Since they are the ONLY source for ‘their’ parts so they can charge anything they want and the government pays.
    Even though they subcontract all the manufacturing but the final testing out to other smaller companies.

    For parts that the original patent holder has leased out we have made the very same parts for several companies all placing their names on the parts and all selling them at very different prices according to who is buying.
    And guess who pays the most? The US government.

    Why do you think an aircraft bolt that cost the military 25 bucks can also be purchased on line for a fraction of that cost from a civilian provider. Same bolt, same testing, same quality, vastly different costs. Only difference is the buyer.

  • Cotour

    A pure cost is obviously not the bottom line when dealing with government. If Elon Musk is basing his proposal just on the final cost and selling that to the government then he has a very long road ahead of him. That’s like assuming that the rules that apply in the “real” world outside of the Washington belt way apply within. They do not.

    There has to be another angle to his proposal than just cost. He can not be that naive, and he probably is not, its probably a starting point for the private sector to angle its way in to get to deal. Apples and oranges just like your example illustrates and I doubt that its about to change in any substantial way.

    The government spends 680 billion dollars a year on military stuff, that’s much more than all other major country’s combined. That is not going to change much, if at all. That’s how much they want to spend.

  • Kelly Starks

    I was comparing SpaceX cost per ton to ISS to Shuttles cost per ton of cargo. With a per flight total cost of about $440m for SpaceX compared to $1.2B for the shuttle, but only carrying 1/4th as much cargo tonnage, cost per tons – your cost per ton is much higher.

  • Kelly Starks

    Well 2 out of 3 commercial crew bidders plan to launch on the Atlas V, which is one of the EELVs.

    …though I think SpaceX Falcons got a higher % of their dev funds then the EElVs from the DOD (several times that much for NASA) so you could call the Falcons a Air Force launcher?

  • Kelly Starks

    >..The difference in in the final source. We sell to Lockheed. Lockheed does a few more
    > tests to the parts and ‘certifies’ them good for the military or government. Then they
    > tack on a HUGE markup and make the sale…

    Having worked for the L/Ms Boeings, etc… no they don’t add a huge mark up – they get buried under nonsensical gov paperwork. Federally mandated Bureaucratic and political nonsence that – like with the legendary $100 hammer and screw driver – utterly dwarf the costs of the actual items. The eagerness of NASA folks to pile on more unnecessary costs (for added voter support and automatic civil service mandated raises and bonuses) is disgusting to watch up close.

  • Edward

    The Atlas V was designed to government specifications, but the Falcon was designed to SpaceX specs. SpaceX was more flexible in providing for commercial customer needs and desires, but the Atlas V provides for government needs and desires.

    This is why SpaceX is focused on cost reduction but ULA is not. Space’s primary customer base is commercial, but ULA’s is the government. “Faster, better, cheaper” is a cliche to government, but it is necessary for the competitive nature of commercial businesses.

    So, no. I would not call Falcon an Air Force launcer.

  • Edward

    > disgusting to watch up close.

    Amen!

    NASA, NOAA, military, and other government agencies. Do *not* get me started on this topic of unnecessary paperwork, bean counting, interference, and changes after the hardware has been built. It is one big, gigantic cluster.

    Working commercial space is so much nicer. The customers let you do your job, and when the technology improves midassembly, they don’t insist that you change the hardware to go to 11.

  • Kelly Starks

    Something positive about actually having to care about the bottomline.

    ;)

    Sandy McDonnell (then CEO of McDonnell-Douglas) once commented that the company had just finished 2 aircraft revisions that were about the same level of technical complexity. stretching and modifying a DC..(whatever) airliner, and the F-15E fighter bomber. The Airliner customer required a 80 page contract, and MDC could figure out what engineering paperwork etc they needed to get it certified. The Air force required a 18 wheeler trailer full of paperwork, with sets of onsite monitors, and chronic reviews and respec’s from congress.

    ;/

    I’m finding NewSpace on the dream Chaser team has its ups and downs though. They aren’t weeded to old ways of doing things…but they often haven’t embraced they idea they need any organized way to do things….and they can dither for months on trivia with a big deliverable breathing down their necks.

    Its becoming apparent why NewSpace companies take years doing what the big firms could do in months.

  • Kelly Starks

    Given Musks high final costs – that’s not what hes using to get gov contracts. ;)

  • Kelly Starks

    Given the Atlas-V and Delta-IV were developed primarily on commercial dime (unlike SpaceX), for both commercial and gov needs. The commercial market imploded (and they were legally bared from the international market for a long time) but they are still competitive high quality craft. And ULA has a good reputation in the industry for professionalism, and honesty. SpaceX.not so much.

    As for costs, given SpaceX governmental customers are paying about 3 times what their fans like to quote, and their competitors are all raising their costs, I don’t think think they are the big cost/quality kings their PR is saying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *