NASA will pay Boeing more than twice SpaceX for crew seats

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after landing in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019.
Enlarge / The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after landing in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA confirmed on Wednesday that it has awarded five additional crew transport missions to SpaceX, and its Crew Dragon vehicle, to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. This brings the total number of crewed missions SpaceX is committed to performing for NASA through 2030 to 14.

Like before reported by Arsthese are likely the last flights NASA needs to keep the space station fully occupied until 2030. Although no international agreement has yet been signed, NASA has signaled that it would like to continue flying the laboratory in orbit until 2030, when one or more U.S. commercial space stations are expected to be operational in low Earth orbit.

Under the new agreement, SpaceX would fly 14 crewed missions to the station on Crew Dragon, and Boeing would fly six during the station’s lifetime. That would be enough to meet all of NASA’s needs, which include two launches a year, each carrying four astronauts. But NASA has the option of buying more seats from either supplier.

“NASA may require additional crew flights to the International Space Station beyond the missions the agency has purchased to date,” agency spokesman Josh Finch told Ars. “The current sole source change for SpaceX does not preclude NASA from pursuing future contract changes for additional transportation services, if required.”

Price and performance

In its seat purchase announcement, NASA did not specify why it purchased 14 missions from SpaceX and only six from Boeing. However, this decision to buy all remaining seats from SpaceX is likely down to past performance and price. SpaceX began flying operational missions to the space station in 2020, with the Crew-1 mission. Although Boeing’s Starliner will make a crewed test flight early next year, likely in February, its first operational mission won’t take place until the second half of 2023.

Additionally, there are questions about the availability of rockets for Starliner. Boeing has purchased enough Atlas V rockets from United Launch Alliance for six operational Starliner missions, but after that the Atlas V will be retired. At a press conference last week, Boeing commercial crew program manager Mark Nappi said the company was considering “different options” for Starliner launch vehicles. These options include buying a Falcon 9 from competitor SpaceX, paying United Launch Alliance to humanely evaluate its new Vulcan rocket, or paying Blue Origin for its upcoming New Glenn booster.

Whatever NASA’s ultimate reasons, it’s clear in hindsight that the space agency got a much better deal from SpaceX in the commercial crew competition.

There are several ways to estimate the actual costs of the program to NASA, but probably the simplest way is to add up the money that NASA gave each company for the development of its crewed spacecraft and for the flight of operational missions, and divide it by the number of seats purchased. over the life of the program. Recall that each of the two spacecraft, the Boeing Starliner vehicle and the SpaceX Crew Dragon, is designed to carry four astronauts for NASA.

In 2014, NASA narrowed the crew competition to just two companies, Boeing and SpaceX. At that time, the space agency gave Boeing $4.2 billion in funding for the development of the Starliner spacecraft and six operational crew flights. Later, in a reward NASA’s own inspector general called “useless,” NASA paid Boeing additional $287.2 million. That brings Boeing’s total to $4.49 billion, although Finch told Ars that Boeing’s contract value as of August 1, 2022 was $4.39 billion.

For the same services, the development of Crew Dragon and six operational missions, NASA paid SpaceX $2.6 billion. After its initial award, NASA agreed to purchase eight additional flights from SpaceX (Crew-7, -8, -9, -10, -11, -12, -13, and -14) through 2030. This brings the total contract awarded to SpaceX at $4.93 billion.

Costs for NASA

Since we now know how many flights each company will provide to NASA over the life of the International Space Station and the total cost of those contracts, we can break down the price NASA pays each company per seat by amortizing the costs of development.

Boeing, flying 24 astronauts, has a price per seat of $183 million. SpaceX, flying 56 astronauts in the same period, has a seat price of $88 million. Thus, NASA pays Boeing 2.1 times the price per seat it pays SpaceX, including development costs incurred by NASA.

Based on these numbers, it might seem like Boeing is profiting from a government program, but it probably isn’t. Commercial Crew is a fixed price program, which means companies are responsible for overages. Boeing has already reported about half a billion dollars in costs due to the need to refly an uncrewed Starliner demonstration mission. Two sources told Ars the program was a waste of money for Boeing as it struggled to manage the transition from cost-plus to fixed-price contracts.

Still, Boeing’s involvement has been essential for NASA, both to foster competition and to secure funding from Congress. NASA Administrator at the time the development contracts were awarded in 2014, Charles Bolden, confirmed this in a 2020 interview. He said Congress would not have funded the crew program. commercial if Boeing had not bid alongside SpaceX.

“Boeing was a dream” Bolden told Aviation Week. “I call them a champion for being willing to accept the risk of a program that didn’t have the business case closed at the time. And I’m going to be blunt. I don’t know if the business case ends today.”

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