NASA will pay Boeing more than double SpaceX for crew seats

NASA will pay Boeing more than double SpaceX for crew seats
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The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after landing in White Sands, New Mexico on Sunday, December 12.  22, 2019.
expand / The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after landing in White Sands, New Mexico on Sunday, December 12. 22, 2019.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA confirmed Wednesday that it has given SpaceX and its Crew Dragon vehicle five additional crew transport missions to take astronauts to the International Space Station. This brings the total number of crewed missions SpaceX is contracted to fly for NASA by 2030, to 14.

As before Reported by ArsThese are probably the last flights NASA needs to keep the space station fully occupied by 2030. Although no international agreements have been signed yet, NASA has signaled that it wants to continue flying the orbiting lab through 2030. or more US commercial space stations must be operational in low Earth orbit.

Under the new agreement, SpaceX will operate 14 crewed flights to the station aboard Crew Dragon, and Boeing will operate six flights over the station’s lifetime. That would be enough to meet all of NASA’s needs, including two launches per year, each carrying four astronauts. But NASA has the option to purchase more seats from either provider.

“NASA may need additional crew flights to the International Space Station beyond the missions the agency has purchased so far,” agency spokesman Josh Finch told Ars. “The only source change available for SpaceX does not prevent NASA from seeking future contract changes for additional transportation services as needed.”

price and performance

In its announcement regarding the seat purchase, NASA did not elaborate on its reasons for purchasing 14 missions from SpaceX and only six from Boeing. However, the decision to purchase all remaining seats from SpaceX is likely due to past performance and price. SpaceX began flying operational missions to the space station with the Crew-1 mission in 2020. While Boeing’s Starliner will have a crewed test flight early next year, possibly in February, its first operational mission will not arrive before the second half of 2023.

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

Whatever NASA’s ultimate motives, it seems that the space agency got a much better deal than SpaceX in the commercial crew competition.

There are several ways to assess the true cost of the program to NASA, but probably the simplest way is to add up the money NASA gives each company to develop crewed spacecraft and fly operational missions and divide that by the number of seats purchased. the lifetime of the program. Recall that Boeing’s Starliner vehicle and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon each have four astronaut transport ratings for NASA.

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

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

It costs NASA

Now that we know how many flights each company will provide to NASA over the life of the International Space Station, and the exact cost of those contracts, we can allocate the price NASA pays to each company per seat by amortizing development costs.

Boeing has a price of $183 million per seat while flying 24 astronauts. SpaceX, which flew 56 astronauts in the same timeframe, has a seat price of $88 million. Thus, NASA pays Boeing 2.1 times the price per seat it paid to SpaceX, including the development costs NASA did.

From these numbers it may seem like Boeing is taking advantage of a government program, but that’s not the case. The commercial team is a fixed-price program, which means companies are responsible for overruns. Boeing has already reported charges of nearly half a billion dollars for the need to re-fly an uncrewed Starliner demonstration mission. Two sources told Ars that the program was a money loser for Boeing as it struggled to manage the transition from cost-plus contracts to fixed-price contracts.

Yet Boeing’s involvement was crucial to NASA in both promoting competition and securing congressional funding. At the time the development contracts were awarded in 2014, NASA administrator Charles Bolden confirmed this in an interview in 2020. Boeing said Congress wouldn’t have funded the commercial crew program if it hadn’t made a bid with SpaceX.

“Boeing was a dream” Bolden told about Aviation Week. “I call them a champion in being willing to accept the risk of a program whose business case didn’t close at the time. And I’ll be frank. I don’t know if the business case will close today.”

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