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The costs of space cargo

This week there was a bit of a political kerfuffle during House hearings over a House report [pdf] that stated that the cost per pound for launching cargo to ISS was much cheaper using the shuttle versus the new commercial companies under the COTS program. This is shown in this table from page 5 of the report:

House charter graph

The problem is that these numbers are a complete lie, as they are based on a yearly cost of $3 billion to operate the shuttle (highlighted in yellow). I have been following NASA budget battles now for decades, and the shuttle operational budget has never, ever been that low. Routinely, NASA figures the cost to operate the shuttle per year, regardless of number of flights, to be about $4 billion per year.

Thus, the numbers announced by this House report are garbage. They have intentionally underestimated the launch cost for the shuttle by 25% in order to make the COTS program look overpriced. If you instead use the more reasonable $4 billion per year number for shuttle operations (which in itself is still a lowball estimate) you get a cost per pound for the shuttle of $28,357, which is actually larger than the estimated cost of $26,770 per pound for COTS.

Nor does any of this take into account the long term likelihood that companies like SpaceX will eventually be able to lower their costs further, once research and development is complete, the engineering becomes less experimental and more robust, and they start to take advantage of economies of scale by selling more launches to more customers. With these factors in place I have great confidence they will then be able to beat the Russians in price.

The per pound cost for the shuttle, however, will never go down, under any conditions.

I suspect this House report was fudged in this manner as a political move to bolster support for building the program-formerly-called-Constellation, a government-built rocket and capsule that helps bring jobs to Congressional districts. It is for this reason I haven’t paid much attention to it. However, one of my regular readers emailed me to complain about my lack of comment on this subject (Hi Kelly!). Also, I will be discussing this on the Space Show on Monday, Thus I decided this subject deserved comment.

The report does note some legitimate areas of concern in connection with NASA’s effort to transfer its launch capabilities from a government-run system (the shuttle) to private suppliers. At the top of those concerns is the unproven nature of these companies. Without question the Obama administration is taking a big gamble by taking this route.

Moreover, despite the fact that I have been a very big cheerleader for SpaceX over the past five years, I do wonder why SpaceX has not launched any of additional commercial satellites on its Falcon 1 rocket since its second launch (the first successful commercial launch) in July 2009. Back in October 2008 after Falcon 1’s first successful test flight, Elon Musk wrote that he expected to follow up this success with many more flights. “Flight 6 will probably be a Defense Department satellite in the summer [of 2009] and Flight 7 a commercial satellite mission in the fall [of 2009]. In 2010, I expect the launch cadence for Falcon 1 to step up to a mission every two to three months.”

None of these launches ever occurred. And the launch manifest on the SpaceX webpage only says that the multiple Falcon 1e launches of the Orbcomm constellation of 12 satellites will supposedly begin sometime this year. When, however, remains unclear.

It would be help ease the doubts of many people, including myself, if SpaceX started to fly these rockets, as promised, on a regular commercial basis.


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  • The Hearing document table is misleading in other ways, as well. It assumes, e.g., the whole Shuttle payload capability is delivered to the ISS each time. In reality, various pallets, astronauts, etc are returned to earth.

    Conversely, for the CRS delivery the table assumes that only the minimum cumulative mass amount as stated in the CRS contracts will be delivered. As Gwynne Shotwell said in her testimony, if the full payload mass capability of a Dragon is used, the cost is less than $10k/lb. The contract minimum simply takes into account variations in the densities of the cargoes that they will deliver within the finite volume of the Dragon/Cygnet capsules. She pointed out that the CRS program pays for flights, not mass. It is up to NASA to decide what is delivered on a given flight and whether to use the full mass capability.

    The Shuttle program has also only averaged 3.3 flights per year since the ISS was launched.

  • Geoffrey Carman

    Elon has said that the Falcon 1e is on hold while they push to get the Falcon 9/Dragon and FH out.

    I agree, that flights (flight rate even) is critical and that I think that combining COTS Demo2 and Demo3, while it saves them $50 million is costs, is long term a mistake.

    They would be better served to launch both of them, to build confidence and get more flights flown sooner rather than later. Specifically since they have a July window for COTS Demo 2, but if they combine them, the dates I saw were closer to October due to additional testing required.

    Would be better to just start operational use of F9, as soon as possible. Operational F9 usage will build a lot of confidence as they develop Dragon, and FH.

    As always, getting payloads ready is often harder than launching. Ariane had issues with this the last two years, where double payload launches turned out to be problematic, where one delay in a paired launch could ripple delays throughout the entire year. (I think is some of the rationale for downsizing Ariane 6 design to move away from dual launches).

    Maz Vozhoff noted in a podcast (I think it was the Space Show) that Dragon Lab was hoped to help with this, and the plan for 50 experiments from 50 states, where they would do a yearly Dragon Lab launch for school kids would be great.

    Get flying! Get an operational group together, let them run the railroad. Let the development be a separate thread, so ops can go on, regardless of what is being developed.

  • Kelly Starks

    >.. The problem is that these numbers are a complete lie, as they are based
    > on a yearly cost of $3 billion to operate the shuttle (highlighted in yellow).
    > I have been following NASA budget battles now for decades, and the shuttle
    > operational budget has never, ever been that low. Routinely, NASA figures
    > the cost to operate the shuttle per year, regardless of number of flights,
    > to be about $4 billion per year.==

    NASA disagrees with you

    Lists about $3 billion a year for the space shuttle in ’09 and ‘010. ($2.98 & $3.14 billion respectively)

    Even the site attacking this report looking up the budgets found

    Listing the budgets from ’04-’11 were a bit over $3B a year (except for ’04 and ’05 that were $4.5B).

    Perhaps your confusing the space operations budget, (which includes Shuttle and ISS) with the shuttle operations budget?

    > The per pound cost for the shuttle, however, will never go down, under any conditions.

    The same table also showed the number of flights flown under that $3B+ budget varied from none to 5 flights per year. 5 flights for $3B is $600 million per flight, or if you assume a partial cargo load of 16 metric tons, is under $17,000 per pound to orbit. If you assume 2 flights, its $43,000ish, and in 2.5 years of this you’d lift as much cargo as the full COTS/CRS contract to 2016. (And you’d double the number of astronauts you could carry to the ISS per year for free.) If you assume (as the house report you highlighted did) 4 flights a year, you get their $21,000 ish.

    So given the costs per-pound on shuttle HAS gone down, and the cost per year to operate HAS been less; the real cost the House report SHOULD have asked was how low could it go?

    The contractors who operate and service the shuttles for NASA offered recently to restart the program and contract it commercially (I.E. NASA management backs off for them like for SpaceX) for $1.5 billion a year 2012-2016 or $7.5 B rather then COTS/CRS’ $6.2B ish,, providing 10 flights, rather then COTS/CRS’ 20 flights. Assuming the 16 tons per flight assumed in the house subcommittee report. You deliver 160 tons for $7.5B ($21,300 per pound), rather then 80 tons for $6.2B ($35,000 per pound).

    Of course that would also eliminate a couple hundred million a year in tickets for rides on Soyuz or CCDev. Or (as NASA history has shown) increase flight rates with no real cost increase per year (shuttle operations are pretty much all fixed costs, rather then margin costs per flight).

    Or you could recontract for progress flights for even lower costs per pound, but then you also need to contract the Soyuz to carry your crews.

  • Regarding the SpaceX launch rate, they have indicated they are in the process of transitioning from a development/prototyping/debugging mode to a large scale production mode. Just building 10 Merlin engines for every vehicle is no trivial task (and 27 for the FH). Keeping quality control high while ramping up production is crucial. Any failed flight for them is doubly disastrous. Not only will they lose that payload but the anti-SpaceX forces will jump on them with all their might in hopes of knocking them out of commercial crew and keeping them out of the DoD launch biz.

    I’ll note that the Atlas V launch rate also got off to a slow start. –
    – with only 1 to 2 flights per year from 2002 thru 2006.

  • Fred Willett

    Part of the problem is that sat companies book flights so far in the future (2-3 years minimum). The result is that SpaceX doesn’t really have anything to launch till 2112 except COTS 2,3 and CRC 1. Thus there is no incentive to just go for volume of flights at this point. That will come. The issue is how quickly they can work the issues and get COTS done and on to CRC flights. And that’s all about Dragon, not Falcon 9.

  • Kelly Starks


    I posted a responce last night and it didn’t show?

    Are posts with URL’s to references auto filtered?

    Well a short response:

    > The problem is that these numbers are a complete lie, as they are based on a yearly cost of $3 billion
    > to operate the shuttle (highlighted in yellow). I have been following NASA budget battles now for
    > decades, a nd the shuttle operational budget has never, ever been that low. Routinely, NASA
    > figures the cost to operate the shuttle per year, regardless of number of flights, to be about
    > $4 billion per year.

    Actually the shuttle operations budget hasn’t been $4b since fiscal year ’06. ’07 -‘010 has been about $3b ($2.9B to $3.1B) with flight rates up to 5 per year. So the house calculations assuming 4 flights a year for $3B a year is completely reasonable. Which makes the congressional cost per pound calcs work.

    (This is where the URLs to the references were – but you can look up the NASA budget online and look for shuttle operations budget [not space operations since that includes the station])

    > The per pound cost for the shuttle, however, will never go down, under any conditions.

    Given the NASA cost of operations has been shown historicly to be pretty much fixed regardless of flight rate, simply increasing the flight rate lowers the cost per pound. $3B flying 4, 16 ton cargo capacity flights comes out to $21,000 a pound to orbit. Fly only 2 flights a year, your $40K ish a pound.

    This all really REALLY shouldn’t have surprised anyone. COTS/CRS total program cost was budgeted for over $6B for 20 flights of 4 tons each. Which comes to about $75M per metric ton. About what you get if you take shuttles total program cost, divide it per # of flights, and divide that per flight cost by 16 tons. So expectations of great savings never made sense. Worse, a lot of those total shuttle program costs are the long sunk costs to develop the shuttle. Just comparing the resent yearly NASA program costs, vrs 4 flights gets you what the house report listed.

    What the house report should have considered was what if you gave shuttle a level playing field with COTS/CRS, and operate shuttle commercially for NASA like the COTS/CRS. The contractors have long bid to do that for 3-4 times less a year. Pity that wasn’t allowed.

  • Kelly Starks

    Opps – forgot to mention that the couple shutle flights per year for cargo save congress from having to shell out hundreds of millions a year to the Russians for cab fair. Crew carry capacity is a free side capacity for the shutle cargo flights.

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