The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lands behind White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, December 22, 2019.

NASA will pay Boeing twice as much as SpaceX for crew seats

enlarge / The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lands behind White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, December 22, 2019.

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA confirmed Wednesday that it has awarded SpaceX and its Crew Dragon spacecraft five additional crewed transport missions to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. By 2030, SpaceX has a total of 14 crewed missions with NASA.

As previously reported by Ars, these could be the last flights NASA needs to have the space station fully occupied by 2030. While no international agreement has been signed, NASA has said it wants to continue flying at the orbiting laboratory until 2030, when one or more commercial U.S. space stations should be in low-Earth orbit.

Under the new agreement, SpaceX will fly 14 crewed missions aboard the Crew Dragon, while Boeing will fly six crewed missions over the life of the space station. That’s enough for all of NASA’s needs, which includes two annual launches with four astronauts each. But NASA could choose to buy more seats from either supplier.

“NASA may require additional crews to fly to the International Space Station in addition to the missions the agency has purchased to date,” NASA spokesman Josh Finch told Ars. “The current sole source modification to SpaceX does not preclude NASA from pursuing a future as needed. Contractual modification for additional shipping services.”

price and performance

In announcing the purchase of seats, NASA did not elaborate on its reasons for buying 14 missions from SpaceX and six from Boeing. However, the decision to buy all the remaining seats from SpaceX is likely due to past performance and prices. SpaceX began operating missions to the space station in 2020 with the Crew-1 mission. Although Boeing’s Starliner will conduct a crewed test flight early next year, possibly in February, its first operational mission won’t be completed until the second half of 2023.

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

Whatever NASA’s ultimate reason was, in hindsight, it’s clear that the space agency got the better deal from SpaceX in the competition for commercial crew.

There are several ways to assess the true cost of the program to NASA, but probably the easiest way is to add up the money NASA awards each company to develop the crewed spacecraft and fly the operations mission, and divide by the number of seats purchased throughout the life of the program. Recall that each of the two spacecraft, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, was rated to transport four astronauts for NASA.

In 2014, NASA narrowed the crew competition to Boeing and SpaceX. At the time, the space agency gave Boeing $4.2 billion to develop the Starliner spacecraft and six operational crew flights. Later, in a ruling that NASA’s own inspector general called “unnecessary”, NASA paid Boeing an additional $287.2 million. That brings Boeing’s total value to $4.49 billion, though Finch told Ars that Boeing’s contract as of Aug. 1, 2022, is worth $4.39 billion.

NASA paid SpaceX $2.6 billion for the same services, Crew Dragon development and six operational missions. After receiving the initial award, NASA has agreed to purchase another eight flights from SpaceX — Crew-7, -8, -9, -10, -11, -12, -13 and -14 until 2030. This brings the total contract award to SpaceX to $4.93 billion.

NASA’s cost

Since we now know how many flights each company will provide to NASA over the life of the ISS, and the full cost of those contracts, we can break down the amount NASA pays each company for each seat by amortizing development costs. price.

Boeing costs $183 million per seat to carry 24 astronauts. SpaceX has flown 56 astronauts over the same time period, and its seats cost $88 million. As a result, NASA pays Boeing 2.1 times the price per seat it pays SpaceX, including development costs incurred by NASA.

Judging by these numbers, Boeing appears to be profiteering from government programs, but that may not be the case. Commercial Crew is a fixed price plan, which means the company is responsible for overruns. Boeing has already reported about $5 billion in costs due to the need to redo the unmanned Starliner demonstration mission. The plan has been a loss for Boeing as it struggles to manage the transition from cost-plus contracts to fixed-price contracts, two sources told Ars.

Still, Boeing’s involvement remains essential to NASA, both in promoting competition and in securing funding from Congress. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden confirmed this in a 2020 interview when the development contract was awarded in 2014. Congress would not have funded the commercial crew program if Boeing hadn’t bid with SpaceX, he said.

“Boeing is a dream,” Bolden told Aviation Week. “I call them champions who are willing to take risks for projects that didn’t have the business case done then. I’ll be blunt. I don’t know if the business case is done today.”

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