How Much Will Commercial Crew Cost?

How Much Will Commercial Crew Cost?

Just as everyone is wondering how much Ares I would cost, the same questions are being asked about commercial crew. The House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics released a letter from the Aerospace Corporation at yesterday’s hearing expounding on Aerospace’s role in assisting the Augustine Committee with its estimates of the cost for commercial crew capabilities.

The letter responds to questions posed by subcommittee chair Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). In the letter, Aerospace stresses that the Augustine Committee hired it to “provide technical analyses as directed” and “We acknowledge that the Committee received information not known to Aerospace.” The 12-page response does not answer the question of how much commercial crew would cost, but illuminates the level of uncertainty.

The Augustine Committee report is often quoted as concluding that the cost to NASA of commercial crew would be about $5 billion. That figure is based on a $3 billion estimate by the committee of what it thought NASA would have to provide as an incentive to the private sector, but does not reflect the additional private capital that it expected to be provided by the companies themselves. Aerospace adjusted the committee’s estimate upward to $5 billion by adding $400 million for a demonstrator flight and minor modifications to an existing launch vehicle and then applying “historical cost growth” as it did for other estimates for NASA developments, according to the letter. However, Aerospace was not asked to validate the committee’s $3 billion figure, on which the higher estimate is based: “In fact, no verification could be performed given the Committee’s statement that this dollar amount was simply NASA’s portion of the total cost.” Aerospace said that to its knowledge the $3 billion “did not include all ground support/infrastructure costs.”

The upshot of the Aerospace letter is that although it has a reputation for providing solid, independent cost estimates, that was not its role in this case. The Augustine Committee was focused on macro-level questions, the letter says, and instructed Aerospace as to what analysis it wanted performed, which Aerospace completed on a compressed timeline. Aerospace representatives stressed that point repeatedly during public meetings of the Augustine committee: “…[O]ur only caveat was that these analyses were directed and developed to be used as guideposts for comparison among options. We do not claim them to be traditional independent analyses of all the elements of each program.”

Cost is at the heart of the issue over the Ares I launch vehicle and its Orion spacecraft versus commercial crew. If anyone wants to have an informed debate about the profound questions being posed about the future of the human space flight program, then publicly available, credible estimates for both Ares I and commercial crew are a sine qua non.

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