NASA doesn’t want to talk seat prices for Dragon and Starliner, but we should

Nearly five years ago, NASA faced a difficult decision. The agency had spent about $1.5 billion to help Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada …
SpaceX's Crew Dragon approaches the International Space Station in March, 2019.
Enlarge/ SpaceX’s Crew Dragon approaches the International Space Station in March, 2019.
NASA

Nearly five years ago, NASA faced a difficult decision. The agency had spent about $1.5 billion to help Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corporation design spacecraft that could carry US astronauts to the International Space Station. As it sought to build flight hardware, NASA prepared to select just two providers to move forward—both to generate a healthy competition and provide redundant access to space.

NASA had a total of $7 billion for the winning companies to finalize development of their spacecraft, integrate their rockets, and each fly up to six missions after NASA certified the vehicles as space-worthy.

Publicly, some Boeing officials were denigrating SpaceX, emphasizing their own blue-blooded legacy. Boeing has had a successful working relationship with NASA dating back to 1961 and the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. By contrast, Boeing would note, Elon Musk seemed more interested in flashy marketing and never met his launch targets. “We go for substance,” John Elbon, head of Boeing’s space division, said at the time. “Not pizzazz.”

Behind the scenes, Boeing was pushing hard to win all of the funding for NASA’s commercial crew program, and the company was encouraging NASA to go with the safe choice over spaceflight newcomers SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. “We were fighting to keep two providers as many in Congress, lobbyists, and some in NASA were fighting to down-select to only Boeing,” one government source familiar with the process told Ars.

In the end, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, kept two providers, Boeing and SpaceX. This has proven a wise decision for reasons of both cost and schedule. It also offers a timely lesson as NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine considers new approaches to taking humans back to the Moon with a reasonable budget and schedule.

Cost disparity

In terms of cost, NASA is getting a better deal from SpaceX. Perhaps the best way to determine costs is by “seat prices,” the amount of money NASA pays to get one of its astronauts to the International Space Station. In recent years, since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has paid Russia as much as $81.8 million per seat.

NASA has rarely talked “seat price” for commercial crew. Really, it has only come up during Congressional hearings, when Gerstenmaier has quoted a figure of $58 million. “Assuming all 12 missions are purchased and flown at a rate of two per year, the average seat price is $58 million per seat for commercial crew,” he testified in 2015.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, right, and Boeing space chief John Elbon in front of a Starliner in 2012.
Enlarge/ NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, right, and Boeing space chief John Elbon in front of a Starliner in 2012.
NASA

However, this number does not reflect what NASA is paying Boeing and SpaceX individually. According to the US Government Accountability Office, there are three main funding lines in the commercial crew agreement: line item 001 is for development and testing, line item 002 is for service missions, and line item 003 is for special tests, studies, and analyses. To determine the per-seat price, we need to know the value of line item 002 and then divide by the number of seats per flight (four) and flights (up to six).

Neither the agency nor the companies have publicly disclosed the values for line item 001 or line item 002. But we can make a pretty good estimate. By subtracting line item 003 (up to $150 million for each company), knowing the total value of the contracts, and using NASA’s own average value of $58 million “seat price,” we can back into the total value of line item 002: $2.784 billion. This, then, is the total amount NASA is paying for 12 operational flights to the space station from 2020 to 2024, or a total of 48 seats from both companies.

Now, for the final step: overall, NASA awarded Boeing $4.2 billion for its commercial crew contract and SpaceX $2.6 billion. If this proportion of funding holds for line item 002, which a NASA source indicated is more or less accurate, then the seat prices NASA is paying Boeing and SpaceX are substantially different. According to this analysis, NASA will pay Boeing about $71.6 million per Starliner seat and SpaceX $44.4 million per Dragon seat.

Why is NASA paying Boeing so much more? Probably because the company asked for it. As part of this competition, SpaceX bid a low price because it believed the space agency would prioritize lower prices. “Knowing I could have bid more, after the fact, I sure wish I would have bid more,” Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said about this price disparity in 2018. Essentially, competition drove SpaceX to offer a lower price.

Schedule

Despite receiving less money from NASA and having less spaceflight experience, it now seems likely SpaceX will deliver a crew capability sooner. The California-based company has already flown its demonstration mission for NASA a month ago, and it is now working toward final testing that would allow its first crewed mission later this year, probably no earlier than October.

By contrast, Boeing will not fly its first uncrewed demonstration mission until at least August, and NASA has acknowledged that this date may well slip again. One troubling sign for Boeing is that the company still has not performed a launch-pad abort test—during which Starliner’s emergency escape system is fired from the launch pad to ensure the capsule can rapidly get away from the rocket during a launch problem.

This test was originally scheduled for June 2018, but it has been indefinitely delayed after an anomaly occurred that month during a hot-fire test of the launch-abort engines. After this accident, which Boeing did not publicly disclose until a report in Ars nearly a month later, the company said, “We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.” However, 10 months after the incident, Boeing is only now “preparing to restart” a campaign that will culminate with the abort test at some point in the future.

SpaceX has had its own technical challenges with the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon parachutes, but it now appears likely to deliver a finished product to NASA before Boeing by several months, for less money. It seems plausible that SpaceX will, in fact, fly crew into space before Boeing flies a Starliner demo mission. Had NASA issued a sole-source contract to Boeing for commercial crew, not only would the agency have had a single provider with a higher price, it probably would have had to wait longer for that product.

The implication here for NASA, as it looks to extend human spaceflight from low-Earth orbit into deep space, seems clear. If the agency is serious about lunar landings by 2024, it has a lot of contracts to set soon: for Gateway modules, for lunar lander components, for spacesuits, and for rockets to get all of that material into lunar orbit. The lesson from commercial crew is that healthy competition among providers is good, commercial contracts can lead to lower prices, and just because a company has a long history of spaceflight success doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily perform better than the new kids on the block.

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Waits for Boeing’s new space capsule for astronauts

SpaceX, NASA’s other crew supplier flew its own fresh Dragon capsule without a crew to the International Space Station last month. The schedule is …

Launch flaws are faced by the new space capsule for astronauts of boeing.

The Starliner capsule was supposed to make its debut this month. Nevertheless, the first test flight is now off till August. And the next test flight, with astronauts, will not happen until late in year.

Wednesday the revised lineup was declared by NASA. At exactly the exact identical time, officials said the Starliner crew will stay at the International Space Station longer than the couple of weeks. The assignment length is going to be determined.

SpaceX, NASA’s other crew supplier flew its own fresh Dragon capsule without a crew to the International Space Station last month. The schedule is under review, although the very first flight with astronauts may be as early as this summer.

Boeing reported the major landmarks are eliminated and the capsule is practically finished. But scheduling conflicts having an early summer Air Force launching helped push the introduction of the Starliner into August.

The Starliner will soar on the Atlas V rocket of United Launch Alliance, the exact same kind of rocket needed for the Air Force assignment from exactly the pad.

The Starliner team will move in the complex for an extended period, while the first SpaceX astronauts will go to the space station for a couple of weeks at most. The typical station stay is about half a year.

NASA wants to reduce its reliance on Soyuz capsules that are costly as soon as you can, and so that the Boeing test flight will probably double as a taxi mission for station residents. NASA astronauts have been stuck driving rockets because the shuttle program’s end.

SpaceX Dragons and Boeing Starliners will return human launches after the eight-year hiatus, to Florida. NASA contracted to take care of space station airport flights, so it could revolve around getting astronauts to the moon and, eventually, Mars.

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The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives assistance from the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is entirely responsible for content.

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NASA isn’t happy about India’s anti-satellite missile test

Planet Labs, a long-term partner of the Indian Sauce Research Organization (India’s space agency), condemned the test and emphasized that space …

On March 27, India conducted an anti-satellite missile test and successfully destroyed a live satellite sitting 186 miles above the surface, in low Earth orbit (LEO). This means the world’s biggest democracy is also the fourth nation in the world with anti-satellite missile capabilities (after the United States, Russia, and China). The news was not greeted warmly: The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement expressing, well, concern about the test as an example of increased militarization of space. Planet Labs, a long-term partner of the Indian Sauce Research Organization (India’s space agency), condemned the test and emphasized that space should be used for “peaceful purposes.”

But the fiercest criticisms came on Monday by none other than NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, during a meeting with NASA employees for an open Q&A session. Bridenstine called the test and the orbital debris field it left in its wake “unacceptable,” and said “NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is…It’s is not acceptable for us to allow people to create orbital debris fields that put at risk our people…These activities are not sustainable or compatible with human spaceflight.”

At the Q&A session, Bridenstine explained that NASA and the military had assessed the debris field last week, and determined the risk of small debris impacting the ISS was increased by 44 percent, over a period of 10 days. (This came in spite of previous comments from Lieutenant General David Thompson, vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command the week before, who said, according to Reuters, that the ISS at that point was not at risk.) Bridenstine said NASA had identified about 400 pieces of orbital debris created by the event (and in all likelihood, there were probably 10 times as many fragments produced). Only about 60 pieces were large enough (at least 10 centimeters in diameter) to be actively tracked.

So what exactly does this “44 percent increase in risk” mean? How did NASA come up with this number, and what sort of danger does this pose to the astronauts on board the space station? NASA declined to comment or make any expert available for questions, but we know that assessing orbital debris threats is not a clear-cut process. The main issue “is that we don’t have precise knowledge of where things are in orbit,” says Raymond Sedwick, a University of Maryland aerospace engineer and the director of the Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research. While the location of operational satellites are obviously known and tracked by whomever is operating the satellite itself, decommissioned satellites and pieces of debris have to be tracked by the Air Force, and depending on the object and whatever sensor is tracking its movements, the estimated location ranges to within a few hundred meters or as wide as a several kilometers.

“If your estimate of the velocity is off, then [the object] is moving faster or slower than you think, so over time it ends up moving more or less than you think,” says Sedwick. At an orbital velocity of, say, 7,500 meters per second, an error of only a few centimeters per second might sound low, but it will cascade over time. After just a single day, the object could be several kilometers away from where you would expect it to be. Compounding this process are factors like atmospheric drag and object orientation. And not all objects are measured every single day. As a result, you can hardly ever know the exact whereabouts of an object at a given moment—you have to rely on broad estimations.

What this means, according to Sedwick, is that threats to the ISS are influenced by uncertainties. You might have a piece of space junk whose closest approach to the ISS is 10 kilometers, and you know its location to within 100 meters. Cool, nothing much to worry about there. But in a different scenario, You might predict an object’s closest approach to the ISS would be 4 kilometers. That should still be safe enough, but the uncertainty of that prediction might be plus or minus 2 kilometers, meaning there is a statistically significant chance the object could get closer than 2 kilometers, and a smaller chance it could be even closer than that. That might be too close to comfort for NASA—especially when human lives are on the line—so it would make sense to boost the ISS to a higher orbit and create more distance between the spacecraft and the debris. (This is a maneuver that happens periodically anyway, since atmospheric drag causes the ISS to fall over time, so the agency would just schedule the boost earlier than usual.)

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Boeing’s first crewed test flight gains extension

SpaceX, the other commercial partner involved with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, carried out the first unmanned flight of its Crew Dragon …
Jason Rhian
April 5th, 2019
An artist's depiction of CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in orbit above Earth. Image Credit: Boeing

An artist’s depiction of CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in orbit above Earth. Image Credit: Boeing

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Missions are often altered as they are readied for flight. The first crewed launch for Boeing’s CST-100 “Starliner” spacecraft appears to be no exception. NASA has posted that the first time astronauts fly aboard the spacecraft would be different than previously envisioned.

NASA announced Wednesday, April 3, that the space agency, along with Boeing, decided to extend the amount of time the Boeing Crew Flight Test (Boe-CFT) CST-100 Starliner would spend docked to the International Space Station.

How much longer the Boe-CFT Starliner will be docked to the space station has yet to be announced. In its April 3, 2019, post the space agency stated: “The extended duration test flight offers NASA the opportunity to complete additional microgravity research, maintenance, and other activities while the company’s Starliner is docked to station.”

“The mission duration will have no impact to our launch readiness date,” Boeing’s Rebecca Regan told SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA echoed these statements in the agency’s blog post, stating: “…The agency and its industry partner also agreed to adjust the target launch dates for flight tests, which will demonstrate Boeing’s readiness ahead of NASA certification to fly crew regularly to the station.”

“NASA’s assessment of extending the mission was found to be technically achievable without compromising the safety of the crew,” NASA’s Director of the agency’s Commercial Spaceflight Division, Phil McAlister, said in the post. “Commercial crew flight tests, along with the additional Soyuz opportunities, help us transition with greater flexibility to our next-generation commercial systems under the Commercial Crew Program.”

SpaceX, the other commercial partner involved with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, carried out the first unmanned flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft last month. Boeing is hoping to accomplish the same feat in about four months (that mission is known as Orbital Flight Test 1 and is currently slated for an August launch). If the current schedule holds, Boe-CFT should take place in November, four months after SpaceX’s planned crewed test flight.

Tagged: Boe-CFTBoeing Crew Flight TestCommercial Crew ProgramCST-100NASAOFT-1Orbital Flight Test 1StarlinerThe Range

Jason Rhian

Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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Watch the International Space Station receive its massive shipment of new supplies

The Falcon Heavy, which originally launched just over a year ago, is just about ready for its second trip skyward, but it might take a miracle for SpaceX …

The International Space Station is like its own little self-contained hostel for astronauts. It’s a weird combination of laboratory, recreational area, and gathering space for the folks who are lucky enough to spend some time in space. That being said, it can’t sustain itself without regular shipments of supplies, and since Amazon doesn’t deliver to space (yet), those goods are sent by groups like Russia’s Roscosmos.

Today, the ISS successfully received one such shipment, and while launches of supply missions don’t get the kind of recognition that crewed launches receive, they’re still incredibly vital to the success of the science being conducted in space.

The resupply mission, known as Progress MS-11 by Roscosmos, left Earth from Kazakhstan early Thursday. It completed a rapid trip to the ISS, arriving at the space station a mere three hours and 20 minutes after it took off. In the video below, you can see the Progress spacecraft creep closer to the station and eventually dock with it.

As is typical of a resupply mission, the Progress spacecraft was packed full of consumables that the astronauts need. That includes things like food and water, as well as propellant. A whopping 110 pounds of oxygen and over 900 pounds of water was included in the delivery, boosting the total size of the shipment to over 5,400 pounds.

It’s important to note that the schedule of resupply missions allows a good bit of leeway with regard to when supplies actually reach the space station. Astronauts are never left in need of any of the supplies while they await the arrival of a resupply mission, and even if such a mission were to completely fail due to some dire technical malfunction or other issue, the astronauts always have plenty of overlap between when their current supplies would run out and when new shipments arrive.

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