SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was in the news once again when NASA announced that it passed a design review for a manned launch. NASA is expecting Dragon — and at least one other of the three capsules it selected for its commercial crew development program (CCDev2) — to be ready for its first mission in 2017. In the meantime, the U.S. is depending on Russian spacecraft to get our astronauts into orbit. At $60 million-a-seat, the aging Russian Soyuz program will hopefully soon be eclipsed by the $20 million-a-seat Dragon.
The news about Dragon came only a couple weeks after NASA had news of its own with the unveiling of the Orion capsule in its early stages. Built primarily by Lockheed Martin (but to NASA specifications, in contrast to the Dragon capsule which is fully developed by the private sector), the olive drab hull was shown off at the Kennedy Center surrounded by NASA employees and congressmen. The capsule is scheduled to make its first unmanned flight in 2014, with the Space Launch System (the rocket for taking Orion to the moon or beyond) scheduled to test launch in 2017.
It is good to see NASA on track for some big spaceflight milestones once again. But despite the progress, something stands out as a problem: The total NASA funding for the CCDev2 program was around $270 million. That’s $270 million for the development of four different vehicles to bring people into orbit. NASA will then have to pay per flight once the vehicles are functional, but it’s still not bad.
Especially when compared to the Orion capsule.
Compared to the SpaceX CCDev2 program, the Space Launch System that Orion is a part of is expected to cost $38 billion. Between $17 to $22 billion is needed just for development. That is 80 times the cost of the development of four manned crew vehicles by the private sector, i.e. 320 times more per vehicle.
Now, I understand that creating a system to go to the moon is much more complicated and expensive than going to orbit. But 320 times more? I think not.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has said he could do it for a grand total of $3 billion, not all of which would have to be footed by the government. That would be less than one quarter of the $13 billion NASA spent on the defunct Constellation moon program that never even produced a flyable rocket. I think it might be wise for NASA to consider refocusing its budget (side note: a survey showed that most Americans thought NASA got 25% of the federal budget while it actually gets less than half of 1%).
Looking at the state of the aerospace industry, it is hard to be surprised by the inefficiency. The aerospace industry is one of the most concentrated in the country, fed by consistent government contracts. Programs are always going over time and over budget, which is unsurprising when “cost plus” contracts pay the contractors more the longer they take, and there are only a couple of companies to choose from.
It may seem bizarre that I am bashing one system of contracting in favor or another, but CCDev-style programs are fundamentally different than the normal system. CCDev contracts for the service of transporting people and goods to space, as opposed to the current system of contracting for the construction of a NASA product. Private companies are then free to accomplish the task as they see fit, instead of merely building a capsule to NASA specs.
Commercial space companies are very new and have yet to prove themselves entirely capable of human spaceflight. While I do think NASA has serious spending problems, I would not advocate immediately overthrowing the current system in favor of an industry that only took its first baby step a couple months ago. Hopefully by the end of this decade, or maybe even within five years, we will have seen multiple private launches of astronauts to orbit. Until then, NASA should continue its work, but focus more on enhancing the development of the private sector.
NASA’s vital role in this country has and always will be to spur technological progress beyond what the general private sector will accomplish on its own. It has been wildly successful in doing so thus far, but the advent of cost efficient private space companies will allow NASA’s dollar to go much further towards technological advancement. It would be better for everyone if they pursued that path.