Space has become a little more private. When man walked on the moon in 1969, he did so with the help of public resources: it was scientists at NASA – a public body – and public money that were used to take this step. .
In recent years, this philosophy has changed. Private companies are now major players in this unique new era of the space race, and they have achieved something particularly important: reducing the cost of that space ticket – this weekend we were amazed at the success of the mission Demo-2 – and for example, make it more affordable than the one imposed by Russia with its Soyuz capsule. How did companies like SpaceX accomplish something like this?
Going to space is cheaper thanks to private companies
NASA believes that thanks to this alliance saved $ 30 billion in the development and construction of their new spacecraft, a figure they analyzed in Quartz that highlighted the shift in economic focus in this space race that we are now seeing reappearing.
The space shuttle that NASA developed for all kinds of space missions – not only manned – ended up imposing obvious risks: the tragic accidents of 1986 and 2003 killed 14 people and were decisive for astronauts. remove this ship in 2011.
NASA would ultimately depend on the Russian Soyuz capsule to get to the International Space Station, which is important given that it had already invested $ 100 billion there. Russia has suddenly become a clumsy and indispensable partner in these space missions: the Soyuz has always favored Russian cosmonauts, and the ticket for space travel has increased considerably in recent years, from 20 in 2010 to 80 million dollars today.
NASA took action on this and began to develop the Commercial Crew program, which gave private companies the opportunity to develop solutions to the problem. SpaceX, founded in 2002, took advantage. The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft are the result of this effort.
The arrival of private companies in this space race it was not without obstacles, even less. NASA has partners like Lockheed Martin and its Orion spacecraft or Boeing with its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that have been delayed for years and have exceeded cost. Here it is not just private companies as such that are to blame: the US Congress. ended up giving them less money than expected.
The cost of developing the various manned spacecraft used by NASA has been disparate, but one thing is clear: the SpaceX Crew Dragon is the cheapest of them all.
This graph shows how despite the cost of these private projects – which are specially dedicated to the high salaries of the engineers involved in this task – the SpaceX Crew Dragon was particularly affordable to develop, as was the Boeing Starliner. . Orion is more expensive, without a doubt, but putting a human in orbit is not the same as putting him on the moon. Some say it’s good to be more expensive, but not with that difference.
The cost of the space ticket is yet another achievement of the Crew Dragon, which significantly reduced the cost imposed by the Shuttle Orbiter and also significantly reduced the cost of the Soyuz.
In the image developed by Quartz, you can see how the Starliner from Boeing will increase the price of this ticket, which Musk criticized by tweeting that “that doesn’t seem to be right.”
The cost estimate came from the Office of the Inspector General of NASA (OIG), which said the Starliner would be “approximately $ 90 million“And about $ 55 million for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
At Boeing, they didn’t entirely agree with this estimate, and they made an interesting point: while the Crew Dragon can carry seven astronauts, including four from NASA, the Starliner “flies with the equivalent of a fifth payload passenger for NASA, so the price per seat should consider using five seats. ” Even NASA admitted that the BIG estimates must take this into account.
Why is SpaceX cheaper than the Russian option?
Experts point out that reasons why SpaceX came up with a cheaper proposition that the one proposed by Russia with the Soyuz is due to several factors.
One of the most important was SpaceX’s focus in this area. Its iterative philosophy This has allowed us to learn from each launch and refine all of the elements that help perfect and optimize these missions, but there is one key.
It is the possibility of using reusable objects. Falcon 9 rockets are the perfect example of this reusability, and since SpaceX demonstrated that the early stages of these rockets could return to Earth and be used in subsequent missions, it became clear that the cost of these launches had been significantly reduced.
How? ‘Or’ What? It’s hard to answer this question exactly – we were talking about a 30% discount on disposable rockets – but what is clear is that this first step represents a good part of the total cost of the Falcon 9 rocket (about 75%) and being able to reuse this means that with each new reuse the cost of the entire launch is more and more amortized.
The Falcon 9 Block 5, for example, is the fifth iteration of the double-decker vehicle that brought the Crew Dragon to the ISS, but this rocket has been reused since its first mission in May 2018. It was his 29th outingand should reach 100 reuse.
There was another key element in this search for solutions as profitable as possible: that NASA delegated to private companies and left them essentially “fight” to achieve this goal.
The conclusion of these contracts with NASA is a complete success, and here Boeing and SpaceX they made sure that the costs did not skyrocket, which is generally common in a more traditional approach with SOEs.
Space tourism as a trade route but beware, Soyuz is looking for a substitute
We have already discussed how, with the success of NASA and SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission, it has brought about an epoch change for the US space race. Being able to stop at the Russian Soyuz base is important, but it’s also important plan for a future in which space tourism is feasible.
This is of course the apparent intention of SpaceX, which has reserved four of the seven seats for the Crew Dragon for NASA, but this you can use the other three for example to put space tourists in orbit.
The company has already entered into agreements with space travel agencies to put these unique tickets on sale in the future, and some data even indicates that this option would be used by Tom Cruise to record a movie on the ISS, although this poses significant difficulties.
This, in any case, certainly presents a unique way to recoup SpaceX’s investment, make these space missions profitable. It is true that with the Shuttle such proposals were also raised, but one of the first protagonists of this program, Christa McAuliffe, died in the Challenger crash in January 1986 and this led to the cancellation. of this type of program.
While SpaceX’s intention appears to be to relaunch these efforts and offer space tourism as an increasingly accessible option, it remains to be seen whether it will be successful. The reuse of Falcon 9 rockets is certainly a remarkable element of this theoretical proposal, which will go further if SpaceX achieves this fully reusable space vehicle with Starship.
Russia apparently does not have a key customer for its Soyuz, but the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has been working in Orel for years, the Soyuz surrogate which was initially known as the Prospective Piloted Transport System (PPTS) and which was also called the Federation.
For its development and construction, $ 734 million has been allocated, which in theory makes it much cheaper than the Crew Dragon which had a development budget of $ 2.6 billion in 2014.
The Federation is expected to be completed in 2021 and make its first flights to the ISS in 2023, but the goal is also to use it to reach the Moon in 2024 or 2025. Its development is however complicated: Delays and cost overruns were also common in this initiative, which also presents worrying technical issues with the vehicle’s exhaust system.