Musk Takes on Skeptics

Musk Takes on Skeptics

Elon Musk, founder, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of SpaceX, the entrepreneurial space transportation company, took on skeptics today, releasing details of how much the company has spent and how much it charges for its services. The information was provided in response to “a steady stream of misinformation and doubt expressed about SpaceX’s actual launch costs and prices,” according to his post on the SpaceX website.

He stated, for example, that the company has a firm fixed price contract with NASA for 12 cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS) at an average price of $115 million each (or $133 million including inflation), including the Falcon 9 launch, Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance, and overhead.

As for sending NASA crews to the ISS, Musk stated that his Dragon capsule can carry seven people “more than double the capacity of the Russian Soyuz, but at less than a third of the price per seat.” An often quoted figure for what NASA is currently paying Russia per seat is $51 million. The Soyuz can launch three people. It is not clear if Musk’s price per seat holds if there are fewer than seven passengers aboard.

Comparing the SpaceX and Russian prices is challenging since the services the two provide are different. NASA recently signed a new firm fixed price agreement with Russia covering 2014-2016, for example, for “crew transportation, rescue and related services” for $753 million. That covers “comprehensive Soyuz support, including all necessary training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue of long-duration missions for 12 individual space station crew members.” If the $753 million were only for taking crews back and forth, it would be $63 million per astronaut, but the “crew rescue” service is separate from crew transportation. NASA did not differentiate the prices. Crew rescue is essentially a lifeboat function Russia provides by having sufficient Soyuz spacecraft always docked to the International Space Station (ISS) so all members of the crew can escape in an emergency. SpaceX does not appear to offer a comparable service and it also is not clear if SpaceX’s price includes training. Thus, an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult to make.

Musk provided other price details and said his company spent “less than $800 million” from when it was founded in 2002 through fiscal year 2010, including all the development costs for its two launch vehicles, Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, and the Dragon spacecraft. He also said the company has been profitable every year since 2007.

He wrapped his statement in a cloak of competition with China, stating that a Chinese official said last month that SpaceX currently has the best launch prices in the world and the Chinese official does not believe China can beat those prices. Musk then asserted that “China has the fastest growing economy in the world. But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower of innovation.”

SpaceX also recently announced that it would build a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV). Calling it “Falcon Heavy,” Musk proclaimed that it would be the largest launch vehicle in history other than NASA’s Saturn V, which was used to send the Apollo capsules to the Moon. He expects the vehicle to be ready for launch in 2013 or 2014, and capable of lifting 117,000 pounds to orbit, twice the capability of the Delta IV, currently the most capable U.S. expendable launch vehicle. (The reusable space shuttle is more capable, but is being terminated.) Musk said that his Falcon Heavy would cost about $1,000 per pound to orbit, which he claims is one-third the cost of a Delta IV based on figures in the Air Force’s FY2012 budget request.

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