On Thursday, NASA's inspector general released a report on the space agency's commercial crew program, which seeks to pay Boeing and SpaceX the development of vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
While the report cites the usual technical issues that companies are facing with developing their respective Starliner and Dragon spacecraft, the cost discussion is far more enlightening. Notably, the report publishes estimated seat prices for the first time and also investigates the extent to which Boeing has extracted more money from NASA above and beyond the fixed price premium.
Boeing's price per seat already seemed to cost more than SpaceX. The company received a total of $ 4.82 billion from NASA over the life of the commercial crew program, compared to $ 3.14 billion from SpaceX. However, for the first time, the government published a price per seat: $ 90 million for Starliner and $ 55 million for Dragon. Each capsule is expected to take four astronauts to the space station during a nominal mission.
What's remarkable about Boeing's price is that it is also higher than what NASA paid Russian space company Roscosmos for the seats of the Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts from the US and partner countries to the space station. Overall, NASA paid Russia an average seat cost of $ 55.4 million for the 70 missions completed and planned from 2006 to 2020. Since 2017, NASA has paid an average of $ 79.7 million.
In addition to these seat prices, Inspector General Paul Martin's report also notes that Boeing has received additional funding from NASA in addition to the fixed price premium.
"We found that NASA has agreed to pay an additional $ 287.2 million above Boeing's fixed prices to mitigate a perceived 18-month gap in ISS flights scheduled for 2019 and ensure that the contractor remains a second crew supplier. without offering similar opportunities to SpaceX, "the report states.
According to Martin, who had broad access to NASA staff in preparing the report, Boeing in 2016 proposed pricing for its third to sixth manned missions using the "2016 single mission price", which was substantially higher than NASA and Boeing had originally agreed. upon. In response, NASA's Purchasing Office determined that "it was not consistent with the terms of the contract and did not match the contract fixed price schedule."
However, Boeing continued to pressure NASA for additional funding. After "prolonged negotiations," according to Martin, Boeing offered some benefits to NASA, such as reduced pre-mission delivery times and variable launch cadence. NASA has agreed to pay the additional $ 287.2 million for these four missions, which are likely to fly in the early 2020s.
Perhaps the most impressive justification for approving additional funds was that Boeing may have discussed the withdrawal of the commercial crew program (CCP). Martin writes: "According to several NASA officials, a significant consideration in paying such a premium to Boeing was to ensure that the contractor remained as the second crew transport provider. CPC officials cited NASA's guidance to maintain two crew suppliers. US commercial plan to ensure redundancy in crew transportation… as part of the justification for approving the purchase of the four higher-priced missions. "
Boeing spokesman Josh Barrett denied that Boeing had threatened to terminate its participation in the commercial crew. "Boeing has made significant investments in the commercial crew program and we are fully committed to piloting the CST-100 Starliner and keeping the International Space Station fully manned and operational," he told Ars.
The report notes that because NASA agreed to pay Boeing extra for these benefits, a similar deal was not offered to SpaceX. "On the other hand, SpaceX was not notified of this change in requirements and was not given the opportunity to propose similar features that could result in lower costs or wider mission flexibility," writes Martin.