The Commercial Crew Program: A Financial Success?

careers manned spaceflight SpaceX Commercial Crew Program

The Commercial Crew Program is a human spaceflight program that is funded by the U.S. government and administered by NASA through which private vendors are to develop and operate crew vehicles to carry US and international astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The Commercial Crew program is far from over, but there can definitely be some conclusions that can be made in regards to the program as a whole as SpaceX was able to successfully launch the Crew Dragon mission on May 30th, 2020. It is the first launch of American astronauts from American soil since the last space shuttle mission in 2011.

Quick Review Of History And Requirements

Started in 2010 under the name of “Commercial Crew Development” or CCDev is a technology and capability development program. At the time of its announcement in 2010, the CCDev was hailed as a replacement of the Space Shuttle, which to be retired after its last flight on July 8th, 2011.

Key high-level requirements for the Commercial Crew vehicles include, but are not limited to:

  • Safely deliver and return four crew members and their equipment to the International Space Station [1] [2]
  • Provide assured crew return in the event of an emergency [1]
  • Serve as a 24-hour safe haven in the event of an emergency [1] [2]
  • Capable of remaining docked to the station for 210 days [1]

However, it is important to remember that this program is not just about giving 1 or 2 companies the money to develop their own programs to get to the ISS and meet the requirements. Many companies were given funding for different technologies to lay the infrastructure for future spaceflight operations that included, but are not limited to the companies of Sierra Nevada, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Alliant Techsystems (ATK), United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin. Many of these companies are based or have offices in the Pacific Northwest.

Verdict

Although there have been many different delays and awards provided in the Commercial Crew Program, NASA did provide operational contracts to fly astronauts in September 2014 to SpaceX and Boeing. After much delay and both Boeing and SpaceX at the finish line, one can start to see how successful the program has been. There are several different ways that we will look at this question, from a technical, financial, and time perspective. The chart we created uses individual charts from the Planetary Society and added in the purpose of the spacecraft to help tell the story of the financial success of the Commercial Crew Program.

Although it is entering the final stages of the program in which both Boeing Space and SpaceX provide NASA with their 3 launches each, we can start to see how successful the program has been from a financial perspective.


Program
PurposePer-Seat Cost (millions, inflation adj)Spacecraft Development Costs (NASA portion, inflation adj)Total Program Development Costs
(NASA portion, inflation adj)
MercuryPut a man into Earth orbit and return him safely$142 million$2.7 billion$2.7 billion
GeminiLaunch humans to space to test human abilities and spacecraft in space$117 million$7.6 billion$11.9 billion
ApolloLaunch Man To The Moon$390 million To LEO$30.9 billion$175 billion
Shuttle OrbiterLaunch Astronauts from Florida To ISS, provide partial reusability, and launch cargo such as satellites into space$170 million$27.4 billion$50.1 billion
SoyuzLaunch Astronauts To ISS$90 millionN/AN/A
Crew Dragon +
Starliner
Launch Astronauts from Florida To ISSDragon: $60-$67 million
Starliner: $91-99 million
Dragon: $1.7 billion
Starliner: $2.8 billion
$7.6 billion
OrionLaunch and sustain astronauts in deep space and provide safe re-entry as well$291 Million23.7 billion$23.7 billion
Chart Showing Comparison Of Craft Purpose, Cost Per Seat, Development Costs, and Total Program Costs. Cost Data Courtesy Of Planetary Society [4]

In regards to the technical challenges, a 2019 NASA OIG report stated, “Boeing and SpaceX each face significant safety and technical challenges with parachutes, propulsion, and launch abort systems that need to be resolved prior to receiving NASA authorization to transport crew to the ISS. The complexity of these issues has already caused at least a 2-year delay in both contractors’ development, testing, and qualification schedules and may further delay certification of the launch vehicles by an additional year.”[3] Without the NASA involvement in both funding and technical requirements, it is fair to say that both companies would have not necessarily been able to complete this accomplishment themselves. Creating a new launch and docking system takes years, billions of dollars, and lots of patience as there will be delays due to the complexity. There is some questions that have been raised about NASA getting less technology for their investment in Boeing and SpaceX, as NASA spent nearly $6.6 billion dollars for 6 launches to the ISS. When comparing the technical aspect of the Commercial Crew Program, it has to definitely be a success considering that the private space companies have been able to develop the same level of technical specifications that NASA has been able to develop in the past, albeit with some technical challenges along the way. In terms of whether NASA is getting what they paid for in the technical perspective is a definite yes when comparing this project in light of what similar projects have cost in the past.

Moreover, looking at the financial costs of the early NASA space programs such as Gemini and Mercury and factor in goals, the costs for the services that SpaceX and Boeing Space are providing are actually very similar. The $7.6 billion or so that NASA has spent on the entire Commercial Crew Program is well worth the value considering that this is similar in cost to the Gemini Program spacecraft development. Although the technical specifications and requirements will be different for this and previous missions with the agenda of launching crew to orbit, the costs are quite similar for NASA and the taxpayer. $7.6 billion dollars for a program to launch men into orbit is well worth it!

In regards to costs, one has to remember that the costs of these flights will go down as SpaceX and others reuse their rockets and more players in the market make it more competitive. This funding of private spaceflight means that not only is NASA funding the necessary infrastructure for commercial spaceflight, but also building the infrastructure to potentially help work with these company to go to the moon. For some technology and missions, it might not be feasible for private spaceflight to take the lead, but for sending men to orbit and the ISS, where there is the market and it is feasible, it is worth the cost. The money spent on this project is not only resulting in US companies providing the same product as RosCosMos is for a similar cost, but also building a domestic market. This area is definitely a win for the Commercial Crew Program, as the program provides a greater financial benefit to NASA and society than had NASA tried to develop the capabilities themselves.

In regards to the perspective of time, it is crucial to understand that the work done on the Commercial Crewed Program was done with a specific goal in mind. The goal was for SpaceX and Boeing to take their time to complete the projects in a safe capacity, regardless if it took 5 years or 10 years. Yes, it is optimal for this to be done as quickly and safely as possible, but the point being made is that there isn’t necessarily the political undertones that certain decisions made for NASA. The recent NASA manned program of Constellation, Orion, and Artemis have been plagued by either been over budget, overly optimistic on the time frame, or delayed by engineering challenges. It does take time to produce new space technology and that will be expensive and can have delays due to challenges in engineering. But having programs cancelled by a politician at NASA because they don’t “agree with the science” or don’t like the program for some reason won’t happen in private industry. If private industry can make money by providing accurate weather data to governments and private companies, then the private space company will provide that service. The Commercial Crew Program is showing that if there is a market, if funded properly and given an acceptable timeframe, they can perform these same functions. The time constraints that the private sector has includes completing the contract in time, having enough funding to finish the contract, and delivering the product first. The Commercial Crew Program shows that when viable products are invested in by NASA into private newspace companies, it is indeed possible to get a return on investment in a timely manner.

With clear financial numbers that are favorable for NASA, the numbers clearly shows that the Commercial Crew Program is clearly a success! However, the final verdict will not be seen until Boeing Space and SpaceX finish their launches. Nevertheless, everything is looking favorable as there is now an ability to have some spaceflight capabilities for the US for manned and unmanned spaceflight. In regards to how the future plays out, it looks bright!

Sources And Further Readings

[1] = https://web.archive.org/web/20120328055242/http://commercialcrew.nasa.gov/document_file_get.cfm?docid=107
[2] = https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/660622main_2012.06.18_CCP.pdf
[3] = https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/IG-20-005.pdf
[4] = https://www.planetary.org/blogs/casey-dreier/2020/nasas-commercial-crew-is-a-great-deal-for-the-agency.html

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