NASA Saves Millions of Dollars by Working With SpaceX

Saturday, 11 November 2017 - 2:54PM
NASA
SpaceX
Saturday, 11 November 2017 - 2:54PM
NASA Saves Millions of Dollars by Working With SpaceX
NASA
While they're essentially competition, and no parties involved are blind to that, NASA's been reaping some major benefits by working with private aerospace companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

And in an industry where astronomically expensive things like rockets are constantly being built, "major benefits" can refer to hundreds of millions of dollars. According to a new study written by Edgar Zapata of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the space agency's investment in companies like SpaceX (which began around the late 2000s) has made several projects much cheaper than if NASA handled the whole thing itself.

Zapata used an "apples to apples" approach to comparing costs, which makes the results relatively simple to explain. Until some bigger Mars missions actually plan out, the common type of space travel right now involves sending cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and this is something that private companies like SpaceX and others like Boeing are allowed to help out with.

Starting with the smaller numbers, launching a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station costs about $89,000 per kilogram of cargo, while Orbital ATK Cygnus crafts are more expensive at $135,000 per kilogram. But that's still half the cost of NASA sending a shuttle themselves, which Zapata estimates is $272,000 per kg.


Getting into bigger numbers, it cost NASA about $307 million to help develop SpaceX's dragon capsule, and it'll cost about that much anytime they launch the upcoming manned Dragon capsule (at least the spacesuits look nice). Meanwhile, NASA's own biggest project would be its Orion spacecraft, an advanced rocket that's currently our best bet for sending humans to Mars, if Elon Musk doesn't get their first in a Dragon craft.

Zapata estimates the Orion to cost up to $1 billion each time they launch it, and a whopping $19 billion to even finish developing it. Of course they plan to send the Orion into space, with another big test launch scheduled for next year, but it's not cheap.



So despite the fact that Musk is openly planning to get SpaceX astronauts to Mars before an official NASA mission, it seems like NASA is willing to tolerate that to get some extra help around the ISS. And while current data is largely restricted to low-Earth orbit (shortened to LEO), these kinds of numbers are going to become more important when we start making bigger trips out into space. 

Sending spacecrafts into deep space is going to be exponentially more expensive than just sending them into Earth's orbit, and when it always seems like NASA is underfunded, other companies may become necessary so long as NASA can put up with them (again, referring mostly to Musk there). Zapata ended his study on a similarly agreeable note:

Opening quote
"These opportunities are promising and effort is justified to explore commercial deep space systems, with no assumption that commercial partnerships arbitrarily end at LEO."
Closing quote
Science
Space
NASA
SpaceX
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