A new analysis shows that in the 2020s, NASA will pay significantly more for commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station, rather than taking advantage of cost savings from maturing systems. According to a report by the space agency’s inspector general, Paul Martin, NASA is likely to pay $400 million more for its second round of supply contracts from 2020 to 2024, even though the agency will carry six tons less cargo. Based on costs per kilogram, this represents an increase of 14 percent.
One of the main reasons for this increase, the report says, is a 50 percent price increase for SpaceX, which has so far flown the majority of missions for NASA’s commercial cargo program with its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.
This is somewhat surprising because during the first round of resupply missions, which began in 2012, SpaceX had a significantly lower cost than NASA’s other partner, Orbital ATK. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are expected to fly 31 resupply missions between 2012 and 2020, the first phase of the supply contract. Of those, the new report states that SpaceX is scheduled to complete 20 flights at an average cost of $152.1 million per mission. Orbital ATK is scheduled to complete 11 missions at an average cost of $262.6 million per mission.
But that cost differential will largely disappear in the second round of freight delivery contracts. For flights from 2020 to 2024, SpaceX will increase its price, while Orbital ATK will lower its own price by 15 percent. The new report provides unprecedented public details about the second phase of commercial sourcing contracts, known as CRS-2, awarded by NASA in 2016 in a competitive bidding process. SpaceX and Orbital ATK again won contracts (for a minimum of six flights), along with a new provider, Sierra Nevada Corp. and his Dream Chaser vehicle. Bids from Boeing and Lockheed Martin were not accepted.
The inspector general found that the higher costs for the CRS-2 contracts — $71,800 per kg versus $63,200 during the first round — were caused by three factors: higher prices from SpaceX, NASA’s decision to add three companies to the program. instead of two, and the integration costs of docking and mooring the three different spacecraft to the International Space Station.
For these additional costs, NASA will get more capacity, including increased capacity for pressurized cargo. This should reduce the total number of flights and, accordingly, reduce the time it takes astronauts to catch, load and unload spacecraft for cargo resupply. The space agency will also have three providers instead of two, providing more flexibility in the event that one of the three providers has an accident or other problem that prevents it from flying.
The inspector general cited a number of reasons for SpaceX’s 50 percent per kg price increase, including an upgrade to the company’s second-generation Dragon spacecraft that increased cargo volume by 30 percent, longer missions, and faster access to the Dragon 2 spacecraft. after it sends scientific samples back to Earth.
Perhaps most tellingly, the Inspector General’s report states the following about SpaceX’s reasoning: “They also indicated that their CRS-2 prices reflected a better understanding of costs after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions.” .” This suggests that the company either underbid in the first round of supply contracts or failed to deliver some of the cost savings it had hoped for. (The company declined comment to Ars).
Still, the report isn’t all bad news for SpaceX. When comparing prices, the inspector general said that SpaceX should get credit for the capacity to return cargo to Earth, an ability Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft does not have. The company, along with NASA, was also credited with reducing costs in the general launch market by continuing development of the Falcon 9 rocket.
“Officials believe competition has contributed to lower prices for NASA launches,” the report states. “NASA officials reviewed previous launch prices and found that costs for a base configuration of Atlas V fell by about $20 million per launch after the Falcon 9 became eligible to compete for launch service contracts through the Agency’s Launch Services program in 2013. “