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posted by cmn32480 on Monday November 13, @08:27PM   Printer-friendly
from the spending-these-dollars-makes-sense dept.

In-depth study: Commercial cargo program a bargain for NASA

It has generally been assumed that NASA will save money by spurring the development of services by US companies to supply the International Space Station, but such conclusions have largely been based on estimates. Now, a rigorous new review authored by a NASA analyst, and published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, offers a clear answer to this question.

According to the new research paper by Edgar Zapata, who works at Kennedy Space Center, the supply services offered by SpaceX and Orbital ATK have cost NASA two to three times less than if the space agency had continued to fly the space shuttle. For his analysis, Zapata attempted to make an "apples to apples" comparison between the commercial vehicles, through June 2017, and the space shuttle.

Specifically, the analysis of development and operational expenses, as well as vehicle failures, found that SpaceX had cost NASA about $89,000 per kg of cargo delivered to the space station. By the same methodology, he found Orbital ATK had cost $135,000 per kg. Had the shuttle continued to fly, and deliver cargo via its Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, it would have cost $272,000 per kg.


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  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by frojack on Monday November 13, @08:38PM (9 children)

    by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Monday November 13, @08:38PM (#596443) Journal

    the supply services offered by SpaceX and Orbital ATK have cost NASA two to three times less than if the space agency had continued to fly the space shuttle.

    But how would it cost out if NASA had launched similar sized rockets rather than the Shuttle?
    Even old designs could have handled this work. Instead those production lines were shut down.

    We all knew the Shuttle was expensive. We all knew there were conventional alternatives. Its not clear we would have built the ISS with conventional rockets because the Shuttle provided a maneuverable work platform and a home away from home for the construction. The exercise was worth the the cost in experience gained. But It was never designed to run cheap launches of routine supply missions.

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    • (Score: 4, Informative) by Virindi on Monday November 13, @08:50PM (7 children)

      by Virindi (3484) on Monday November 13, @08:50PM (#596451)

      But It was never designed to run cheap launches of routine supply missions.

      Correction: it was SOLD as this, and the initial designs were for this. But, it was never practically for this.

      • (Score: 2) by MichaelDavidCrawford on Monday November 13, @09:30PM (5 children)

        After the first launch, NASA announced that it wouldn't be reusing them.

        I've often wondered why they didn't try launching an SRB all by itself, just for testing its reusability.

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        • (Score: 3, Interesting) by frojack on Monday November 13, @09:50PM (4 children)

          by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Monday November 13, @09:50PM (#596490) Journal

          Because they found it really wasn't reusable. Once it lands in the ocean the serviceability is just about all gone. It requires a total rewire, and the internal heat damage was way worse than expected. It had no shutdown and restart capability, it couldn't return to the pad.

          https://www.quora.com/Space-Shuttle-How-much-money-was-saved-by-reusing-the-Solid-Rocket-Boosters-SRBs-instead-of-making-them-disposable [quora.com]

          The odd part is they continued to parachute them down and recover them. Why?

          They were tried as launch vehicles for Ares. (once).
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ares_I-X [wikipedia.org]

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          No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
          • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Monday November 13, @10:11PM

            by DannyB (5839) on Monday November 13, @10:11PM (#596510)

            The odd part is they continued to parachute them down and recover them. Why?

            [x] Because there are no consequences for wasting taxpayer money
            [x] Think of the Children -- what if this were to land on someone's head (in some alternate reality)
            [_] To study them
            [x] Because we don't want a bunch of them at the bottom of the ocean

          • (Score: 1) by ElizabethGreene on Tuesday November 14, @04:09AM (2 children)

            by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Tuesday November 14, @04:09AM (#596657)

            >The odd part is they continued to parachute them down and recover them. Why?

            Because it was sold to Congress as a reusable system, and there would have been hell to pay if they threw them away instead of reusing them.

            Yes, seriously. It would have been slightly less expensive to build new ones each time.

            • (Score: 2) by frojack on Tuesday November 14, @06:59AM (1 child)

              by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday November 14, @06:59AM (#596696) Journal

              Yes, seriously. It would have been slightly less expensive to build new ones each time.

              They did build new ones.

              None of them were re-flown as far as I could tell.

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              No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
              • (Score: 1) by ElizabethGreene on Wednesday November 15, @02:22PM

                by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Wednesday November 15, @02:22PM (#597280)

                They weren't reflown, that's true, but they were reused. After they splashd down divers attached a cap to them and pumped out all of the seawater in them. Then they were towed back to port and shipped to the factory. Back at the factory each one of the SRBs segments, were separated, disassembled, cleaned, repaired, and put on a shelf for building a future SRB. The final shuttle flight’s SRBs included 5,000 reused parts from 59 previous missions.

                http://spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts135/fdf/135srbs.pdf [spaceflightnow.com] talks more about this, but unfortunately not in any depth.

      • (Score: 2) by frojack on Monday November 13, @09:36PM

        by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Monday November 13, @09:36PM (#596482) Journal

        No it really was never sold as that.

        That it was sold this way was simply the hit-piece claim made by opponents when the Shuttle was extended past its main purpose, and sucked other projects dry of funding.

        It was sold as the only way to get things like the ISS built. Even NASA was running routine ISS resupply missions and interplanetary missions with rockets, even while they were doing ISS component delivery, assembly, maintenance, crew delivery and return with the Shuttle.

        But basic small supply mission or Launch to Orbit was never one of the selling points NASA claimed.

        --
        No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday November 14, @03:51PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday November 14, @03:51PM (#596834) Journal

      But how would it cost out if NASA had launched similar sized rockets rather than the Shuttle? Even old designs could have handled this work. Instead those production lines were shut down.

      Massively expensive. It's just the way they operate. For example, with what they spent on the Space Launch System over the past 8 years, they could pay for many dozens of launches on commercial launch vehicles.

      A huge thing that gets missed with these comparisons is that commercial launch providers have lower costs in the first place - they just spend less, and higher launch frequency since their launch vehicles routinely get used for non-NASA purposes. That means further substantial cost reduction and higher reliability.

      We all knew the Shuttle was expensive. We all knew there were conventional alternatives. Its not clear we would have built the ISS with conventional rockets because the Shuttle provided a maneuverable work platform and a home away from home for the construction. The exercise was worth the the cost in experience gained. But It was never designed to run cheap launches of routine supply missions.

      Here's an example of the NASA game. It's not entirely clear how we would have constructed the ISS, but it would have been vastly cheaper without funding ten to twenty years of the Space Shuttle ($30 to $60 billion roughly), but the Shuttle was not required for orbital construction, sorry. Nor was it required for putting crew in space.

      The exercise certainly was not worth the cost, because we could have done the same for vastly less and thus, had more for other activities due to opportunity cost of the approach. Because the Shuttle was never designed for cheap launches of routine supply missions, but used for that purpose anyway in order to circularly justify the cost of the Space Shuttle, the US has vastly less capabilities and infrastructure in space.

      Capabilities exist to be used. The unusual capabilities of the Shuttle were almost never used except in near trivial or even negative value applications (such as replacing Hubble optics rather than launching new Hubble replacement telescopes), thus, it's not relevant to our discussion of costs and capabilities, except as a low value demonstrator of the technology.

      Let me give a couple of alternate history scenarios to indicate how bad the Space Shuttle was. Back in the late 1980s, it was clear that the Space Shuttle was going nowhere. For non-contrived missions, they only had a few military and commercial missions left (the military was even going through the trouble of building their own launch vehicle, the Titan IV in order to drop the use of the Space Shuttle entirely). At the same time, commercial space launch was starting to come into its own and soon after, the Russian space program would be seen as needing US customers in order to stay alive (and prevent near future nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation). Instead of running the Space Shuttle for another two decades, NASA could have dropped it in 1990, and contracted everything to fly on commercial launch, encouraging commercial launch providers to compete with each other 5-10 years before the Department of Defense did so with the EELV (Evolutionary Expendable Launch Vehicle) program, which encouraged both competition between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, as well as the creation of SpaceX and the movement of Orbital Sciences into heavier payload markets.

      The International Space Station (ISS) would have slightly lower capabilities (dimensions would be somewhat smaller), but it would be vastly cheaper due to most of the components being launched on US or Russian commercial launch vehicles. Most of the capabilities would remain (or even improve) due to the excision of the Space Shuttle and most international cooperation in the "critical path" from the process. It also means more money available for the unmanned space program.

      Alternately, we could consider what would happen, if NASA hadn't gone with the Shuttle at all. In the early 1970s, the Saturn 1B had the necessary payload to duplicate that aspect of the Space Shuttle. And it would have been capable of launching a small reusable vehicle, meaning we could have had an experimental reusable vehicle at the scale and cost that an experimental vehicle should be at. This is an excellent discussion [selenianboondocks.com] of the huge opportunity cost of the Space Shuttle. It's hard to imagine what the results of having many tens of billions of dollars to throw at space activity would have done and that gain could always be squandered on further white elephants like the ISS.

  • (Score: 4, Informative) by Virindi on Monday November 13, @08:47PM (1 child)

    by Virindi (3484) on Monday November 13, @08:47PM (#596449)

    For his analysis, Zapata attempted to make an "apples to apples" comparison between the commercial vehicles, through June 2017, and the space shuttle.

    This is the least "apples to apples" comparison possible!

    These other services are not currently manned. Putting crew on a space vehicle is much more expensive.

    The Space Shuttle, while originally sold as such, never practically aimed for budget ferrying. In practice the benefit was capability that other vehicles lacked, such as the ability to launch a heavy payload with humans aboard attached to a vehicle with a robotic arm for installation (see: ISS). Another one was the ability to capture and return satellites, or to repair an existing satellite (including carrying any number of needed parts).

    The Space Shuttle was never a simple "launch small supplies to a fixed station" system, except when it was being initially sold. It's not fair to compare it that way.

    If you want a real "apples to apples" comparison, compare to Progress.

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Tuesday November 14, @07:13AM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Tuesday November 14, @07:13AM (#596698) Journal
      No, you have to make these sort of comparisons because that's what the Shuttle was used for rather than what it was capable of. A key thing to remember here is that if NASA had worked on tasks rather than launch capabilities, it would have had less capabilities in term of launch infrastructure, but more capability and activities in space.
  • (Score: 5, Informative) by dltaylor on Monday November 13, @09:03PM (1 child)

    by dltaylor (4693) on Monday November 13, @09:03PM (#596458)

    1/2 to 1/3 is less.

    Additionally, are any of the current unmanned rockets even capable of reliably launching a manned vehicle.

    • (Score: 3, Informative) by mhajicek on Monday November 13, @09:59PM

      by mhajicek (51) on Monday November 13, @09:59PM (#596499)

      Indeed. Two to three times less would put it in the negative.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 13, @09:46PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 13, @09:46PM (#596486)

    Wanna save money? Call Geico. You'll save 15%.

    How did I do, uncle Warren?

  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by MostCynical on Monday November 13, @09:48PM

    by MostCynical (2589) on Monday November 13, @09:48PM (#596488)

    http://dilbert.com/strip/2000-03-30 [dilbert.com]

    "I compared appropriate cost models to ensure our current policy has appropriate support, with actual Research(tm)"

    Also, poor bloke hasn't been able to keep up with Russia good/Russia bad, so didn't include cost comparisons for Russian rockets.

    --
    (Score: tau, Irrational)
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