NASA has just awarded five additional crew transport missions to SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This will bring SpaceX’s total number of manned missions to fourteen, while its competitor Boeing is currently committed to just six missions (as stipulated in the initial contract). After all, NASA will spend a lot more money on Boeing. How to explain such a difference?
Despite the multiple threats of exit from Russia, NASA intends to seize the International Space Station by 2030, after which one or more commercial stations will be able to take over. Based on current contracts, SpaceX will have carried out no less than fourteen manned missions to the ISS by the end of the decade, while Boeing, NASA’s second provider of this type of service, will have completed six.
For now, NASA has not specified the reasons why it chose to buy additional missions from SpaceX and not from Boeing. However, we could easily imagine that the company’s performance, as well as its falling prices, likely played a key role in this decision making.
SpaceX has been carrying out operational missions on the space station for two years, while Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will only carry out its first test flight manned until the beginning of next year. The company’s first operational mission will not take place before second half of 2023.
The question of rocket availability also arises. Whether SpaceX can count on its own launchers reusable Falcon 9, Boeing must, in turn, go through other service providers. The company has already signed up for several six launches aboard United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. However, this rocket model will no longer be available later.
In the case of new contracts with NASA, Boeing will therefore have to resort to other launchers, such as the new Vulcan rocket from the United Launch Alliance or the New Glenn launcher from Blue Origin. However, to date, neither of these two rockets has flown.
SpaceX is also more competitive
There are several ways to assess the true costs of this program. One way to do this would be to count the money NASA spends on these contracts for each company, both for the development of its spacecraft and for each operational mission. Remember that each of the two vehicles, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and the Boeing Starliner capsule, is designed to transport four astronauts to the ISS.
In 2014, NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX as service providers to transport its astronauts into space and no longer depend on Russia. On the one hand, the agency provided funding for $4.2 billion for Boeing for the development of its Starliner spacecraft and six operational crew flights. NASA later paid Boeing an additional $287.2 million, giving us almost $4.5 billion.
For the same services, NASA paid $2.6 billion at SpaceX. NASA has since agreed to purchase eight additional flights by 2030, bringing the total value of these various contracts to around US$ 4.93 billion.
With this data in hand, we can break down the price NASA pays each company per seat. Boeing will fly twenty-four astronauts (four astronauts for each of the six missions). give us a price per seat of $183 million. In turn, SpaceX will fly with fifty-six astronauts during the same period, which gives us a price per seat of $88 million. So NASA will pay Boeing 2.1 times the price per seat you will pay SpaceX. How to explain such a difference?
The political factor
It is also worth remembering that this is a fixed price program. This means that both companies are responsible for cost overruns. NASA no longer writes “blank checks”. However, Boeing has already spent nearly half a billion dollars in additional costs. For now, the company is losing money.
If we take these parameters into account, we might wonder why NASA doesn’t just go through SpaceX. In fact, Boeing’s participation is essential for the agency, both for promote competitionbut also, and above all, for secure congressional funding. Charles Bolden, the administrator of NASA in 2014, in fact recently confirmed that the US Congress would never have funded the commercial crew program if Boeing had not offered it alongside SpaceX. Just as Boeing’s work on the SLS rocket supports many American companies in different states, the Starliner program does indeed generate many jobs across the country.