NASA will pay Boeing twice as much as SpaceX for crew seats

Zoom / The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after landing in White Sands, New Mexico, Sunday, December 22, 2019.

NASA / Bill Ingalls

NASA confirmed Wednesday that it has awarded five additional crew transfer missions to SpaceX and its Crew Dragon to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. This brings the total number of manned missions that SpaceX has been contracted to fly to NASA through 2030 to 14.

As previously Reported by Arsthese will likely be the final flights NASA needs to keep the space station fully occupied until 2030. While there are no international agreements signed yet, NASA has indicated that it wants to continue flying in the orbiting laboratory until 2030, at which time or Most of the US commercial space stations have to be operating in low Earth orbit.

Under the new agreement, SpaceX will fly 14 manned missions to the station aboard the Crew Dragon, and Boeing will fly six flights during the station’s lifetime. This will be enough to meet all of NASA’s needs, which include two launches per year, each carrying four astronauts. But NASA has the option to purchase more seats from any of the suppliers.

“NASA may need additional crew flights to the International Space Station after the missions the agency has procured so far,” agency spokesman Josh Finch told Ars. “The modification of SpaceX’s current single source does not prevent NASA from seeking future contract modifications for additional transportation services, as needed.”

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price and performance

In announcing the seat purchase, NASA did not explain its reasons for buying 14 missions from SpaceX and only six from Boeing. However, this decision to purchase all remaining seats from SpaceX is likely due to past performance and price. SpaceX began operational flights to the space station in 2020, with the Crew-1 mission. Although Boeing’s Starliner has a manned test flight early next year, likely in February, its first operational mission won’t come until the second half of 2023.

In addition, there are some questions about the availability of missiles for Starliner. Boeing has purchased enough Atlas V missiles from the United Launch Alliance for six Starliner operational missions, but then the Atlas V will retire. During a press conference last week, Boeing Commercial Crew Program Manager Mark Nappi said the company is looking at “options for different” for Starliner launch vehicles. Those options include buying a Falcon 9 from a competitor, SpaceX, paying the United Launch Alliance a human evaluation of its new Vulcan missile, or paying Blue Origin for an upcoming New Glenn booster.

Whatever NASA’s ultimate reasons may be, it’s clear in hindsight that the space agency has gotten a much better deal than SpaceX in the commercial crew competition.

There are several ways to assess the true costs of the program for NASA, but perhaps the simplest way is to add the money that NASA has given each company to develop its manned spacecraft and operational flight missions, and divide that by the number of seats purchased over the life of the program. Remember that both spacecraft, Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, are each designated as carrying four astronauts for NASA.

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In 2014, NASA narrowed the crew competition to just two companies, Boeing and SpaceX. At the time, the space agency awarded Boeing $4.2 billion in funding to develop the Starliner spacecraft and six operational crew flights. Later, in an award that NASA’s inspector general called “unnecessary,” NASA paid Boeing Additional $287.2 million. That brings Boeing’s total to $4.49 billion, though Finch told Ars that the value of the Boeing contract, as of August 1, 2022, is $4.39 billion.

For the services themselves, the development of the Crew Dragon and six operational missions, NASA paid SpaceX $2.6 billion. After its initial award, NASA agreed to purchase eight additional SpaceX flights — Crew-7, -8, -9, -10, -11, -12, -13, and -14 — through 2030. This brings the total contract awarded to SpaceX. SpaceX to $4.93 billion.

NASA costs

Since we now know the number of flights each company will provide to NASA during the lifetime of the ISS, and the full cost of those contracts, we can divide the price that NASA pays per company per seat by amortizing development costs.

Boeing, which carries 24 astronauts, costs $183 million per seat. SpaceX, in flying 56 astronauts during the same time frame, has a seat price of $88 million. Thus, NASA pays Boeing 2.1 twice the price per seat it pays SpaceX, including development costs incurred by NASA.

From these numbers, it might appear that Boeing is benefiting from a government program, but that is likely not the case. Commercial Crew is a flat rate program, which means companies are responsible for abuses. Boeing has already reported a fee of about half a billion dollars due to the need to review the unmanned Starliner test mission. Two sources told Ars that the program was a money-loser for Boeing, as it struggled to manage the transition from cost-plus contracts to fixed-price contracts.

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Nevertheless, Boeing’s participation was essential to NASA, both in promoting competition and in securing Congressional funding. Charles Bolden, NASA administrator at the time development contracts were awarded in 2014, confirmed this during an interview in 2020. He said Congress would not have funded the commercial crew program had Boeing not made a bid alongside SpaceX.

‘Boeing was a dream’ Tell Bolden Aviation Week. “I characterize them as heroes in their willingness to accept the risk of a program whose business case was not closed at the time. And I’ll be honest. I don’t know if the business case will be closed today.”

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