Commercial Cargo Will Cost More Than Shuttle-Delivered Cargo Says Congressional Document

Commercial Cargo Will Cost More Than Shuttle-Delivered Cargo Says Congressional Document

Data contained in the charter for today’s House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing on commercial cargo show that on a cost per pound basis, commercial cargo will cost more than cargo delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) by either the U.S. space shuttle or Russia’s Progress automated cargo spacecraft. The hearing is set to begin at 10:00 am this morning.

The hearing charter, prepared by committee staff, contains a table showing that the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) NASA is purchasing from SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. will cost $26,700 per pound to ISS. By comparison, the cost for launch on the shuttle is $21,268 and on Russia’s Progress is $18,149. The table explains the assumptions that went into those calculations, including the fact that they do not include development costs, are considered proprietary information by the companies, and the shuttle costs assume four flights per year with a capability to deliver 16 metric tons to the ISS at a total annual program cost of $3 billion. The document notes further that the costs for CRS would be higher if they were calculated the same way the shuttle costs were derived, by dividing the total CRS program cost by the mass delivered to the ISS. That cost would be $39,700 per pound.

Other figures in the charter show that NASA will have spent $1.254 billion on commercial cargo by the end of FY2011 and its budget projections call for spending just over $5 billion for CRS between FY2011 and FY2016.

Committee staff also point out in the document that NASA was not supposed to sign contracts for any CRS until the companies had demonstrated their commercially-developed capabilities, but NASA has signed such contracts anyway and is using them to make progress payments to the companies. That means NASA “assumed significantly more risk for ensuring the success of the cargo providers,” according to the document.

One question raised in the document is what the path of the commercial cargo program portends for commercial crew. Committee and subcommittee members have expressed deep skepticism about whether the commercial sector is ready to provide crew transportation services to ISS ever since President Obama proposed shifting that responsibility from NASA to the commercial sector last year. Committee staff state in the charter that:

“By purchasing CRS years before the COTS systems had been demonstrated, NASA assumed significantly more risk for ensuring the success of the cargo providers. NASA has indicated that they are ‘too important to fail.’ This concept has important policy and budgetary implications for future commercialization proposals such as the Administration’s proposed commercial crew efforts. Administrator Bolden has repeatedly told Congress that NASA would do ‘whatever it takes’ to make these ventures succeed. According to briefings provided to Committee staff, ‘NASA is depending on our commercial cargo partners. We need their COTS development efforts to succeed so that they can begin providing cargo resupply to the International Space Station…’ Legitimate questions have been raised about this approach since it differs from what was originally intended to be a merit-based and market-based competition.”

The hearing is in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. Witnesses are NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier; GAO’s Cristina Chaplain; SpaceX’s President Gwynne Shotwell; and Orbital’s Senior Vice President and Deputy General Manager (and former astronaut) Frank Culbertson.

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