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NASA will pay more for less cargo delivery to the space station



Expand / A Falcon 9 rocket launches a cargo refueling mission to the International Space Station in 2016.

A new analysis reveals that NASA will pay much more for the delivery of commercial cargo to The International Space Station in the 2020s instead of enjoying the cost savings of the maturation systems. According to a report from space agency inspector general Paul Martin, NASA will likely pay $ 400 million more for its second round of delivery contracts from 2020 to 2024, although the agency will move six tons less cargo. On a cost per kilogram basis, this represents an increase of 14 percent.

One of the main reasons for this increase, according to the report, is a 50 percent increase in the prices of SpaceX, which has so far flown most of the missions for the commercial cargo program from NASA with its Dragon spacecraft and its Falcon 9 rocket.

This is somewhat surprising because, during the first round of supply missions, which began in 2012, SpaceX had substantially lower costs than the other NASA partner, Orbital ATK. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are expected to perform 31 supply missions between 2012 and 2020, the first phase of the supply contract. Of them, according to the new report, 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.

Higher prices

But that cost differential will evaporate to a large extent in the second round of cargo supply contracts. For flights from 2020 to 2024, SpaceX will increase its price, while Orbital ATK will cut its price by 15 percent. The new report provides unprecedented public details on the second phase of commercial replenishment contracts, known as CRS-2, which NASA awarded in a competitive process in 2016. SpaceX and Orbital ATK again won contracts (for a minimum of six flights) ), along with a new supplier, Sierra Nevada Corp. and its Dream Chaser vehicle. Offers from Boeing and Lockheed Martin were not accepted.

  A comparison of the three spacecraft that received the CRS-2 contract.

A comparison of the three spacecraft that received the CRS-2 contract.

NASA Inspector General

Three factors boosted the higher costs of the CRS-2 contracts: $ 71,800 per kg versus $ 63,200 during the first round, the inspector general found. These were: higher SpaceX prices, NASA's decision that three companies participate in the program instead of two, and the integration costs of mooring and docking the three different spacecraft to the International Space Station.

For these additional costs, NASA will obtain more capacity, including a greater capacity for pressurized cargo. This should reduce the total number of flights and, consequently, reduce the time required by astronauts to capture, load and unload spacecraft for cargo refueling. The space agency will also have three providers instead of two, which will offer greater flexibility in case one of the three providers has an accident or other problem that delays their ability to fly.

SpaceX Reasoning

The Inspector General cited a number of reasons for the 50 percent increase in SpaceX per kg, including an upgrade to the second generation of Dragon Dragon ships that increased the cargo volume by 30 percent. hundred, longer missions and faster access to the Dragon 2 spacecraft. Earth.

Perhaps more revealing, the Inspector General's report notes the following about SpaceX's reasoning: "They also indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflects a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with refueling missions. of cargo. " It suggests that the company auctioned the first round of supply contracts or failed to achieve some of the cost savings it hoped to achieve. (The company declined to comment on Ars).

Still, the report is not all bad news for SpaceX. When comparing prices, the inspector general said that SpaceX should receive credit for the ability to return the load to Earth, a capacity that the orbiting ATK's Cygnus spacecraft does not have. The company, along with NASA, also received credits for reducing costs in the general market by boosting the development of the Falcon 9 rocket.

"Officials believe that competition has contributed to lower prices of NASA launches "says the report. "NASA officials reviewed previous launch prices and found that the cost of a basic Atlas V configuration decreased by approximately $ 20 million per launch after Falcon 9 was eligible in 2013 to compete for launch service contracts through of the Agency's Launch Services Program. "


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