NASA to pay more for less cargo delivery to the space station

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Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launches a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station in 2016.

A brand new evaluation finds that NASA will pay considerably more for industrial cargo delivery to the International Space Station in the 2020s fairly than having fun with price financial savings from maturing programs. According to a report by the space company’s inspector basic, Paul Martin, NASA will seemingly pay $400 million more for its second spherical of delivery contracts from 2020 to 2024 regardless that the company can be shifting six fewer tons of cargo. On a value per kilogram foundation, this represents a 14-percent improve.

One of the major causes for this improve, the report says, is a 50-percent improve in costs from SpaceX, which has so far flown the bulk of missions for NASA’s industrial cargo program with its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

This is considerably stunning as a result of, throughout the first spherical of provide missions, which started in 2012, SpaceX had considerably decrease prices than NASA’s different accomplice, Orbital ATK. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are anticipated to fly 31 provide missions between 2012 and 2020, the first section of the provide contract. Of these, the new report states, SpaceX is scheduled to full 20 flights at a median price of $152.1 million per mission. Orbital ATK is scheduled to full 11 missions at a median price of $262.6 million per mission.

Higher costs

But that price differential will largely evaporate in the second spherical of cargo provide contracts. For flights from 2020 to 2024, SpaceX will improve its worth whereas Orbital ATK cuts its personal by 15 p.c. The new report gives unprecedented public element about the second section of economic resupply contracts, referred to as CRS-2, which NASA awarded in a competitively bid course of in 2016. SpaceX and Orbital ATK once more gained contracts (for a minimal of six flights), together with a brand new supplier, Sierra Nevada Corp. and its Dream Chaser automobile. Bids by Boeing and Lockheed Martin weren’t accepted.

A comparison of the three spacecraft that were awarded the CRS-2 contract.

A comparability of the three spacecraft that had been awarded the CRS-2 contract.

NASA Inspector General

Three components drove the greater prices for the CRS-2 contracts—$71,800 per kg versus $63,200 throughout the first spherical—the inspector basic discovered. These had been: greater costs from SpaceX, NASA’s determination to have three firms take part in the program as a substitute of two, and the integration prices of berthing and docking the three totally different spacecraft to the International Space Station.

For these further prices, NASA can be getting more functionality, together with larger capability for pressurized cargo. This ought to cut back the total variety of flights and accordingly cut back the time required by astronauts to seize, load, and unload cargo resupply spacecraft. The space company may also have three suppliers as a substitute of two, which is able to supply elevated flexibility in case considered one of the three suppliers has an accident or different downside that delays its capability to fly.

SpaceX rationale

SpaceX officers declined to deal with the rationale for the firm’s worth improve—50 p.c per kg in accordance to the report. However, the inspector basic cited plenty of causes for this, together with an improve to the firm’s second technology of Dragon spacecraft that elevated the cargo quantity by 30 p.c, longer length missions, and faster entry to the Dragon 2 spacecraft after it returns science samples to Earth.

Perhaps most tellingly, the inspector basic’s report notes the following about SpaceX’s reasoning: “They also indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflected a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions.” This suggests the firm both under-bid on the first spherical of provide contracts or failed to obtain a few of the price financial savings it had hoped to obtain.

Even so, the report will not be all unhealthy information for SpaceX. In evaluating costs, the inspector basic stated that SpaceX ought to obtain credit score for the capability to return cargo to Earth, a functionality that Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft doesn’t have. The firm, together with NASA, had been additionally credited with lowering costs in the total launch market by pushing by improvement of the Falcon 9 rocket.

“Officials believe competition has contributed to lower prices for NASA launches,” the report states. “NASA officials reviewed past launch pricing and found the cost for a basic Atlas V configuration decreased by roughly $20 million per launch after the Falcon 9 became eligible in 2013 to compete for launch services contracts through the Agency’s Launch Services Program.”

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