SpaceX Says Requirements, Not Markup, Make Government Missions More Costly

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PARIS — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. President Gwynne Shotwell said the company’s Falcon 9 launch prices have nudged up to an average of about $60 million for standard commercial launches but that NASA and U.S. Air Force missions will add between $10 million and $30 million per launch.

A launch of the Dragon space station cargo capsule aboard a Falcon 9, she said, about doubles the price of the SpaceX mission.

In a March 21 interview on TheSpaceShow.com, Shotwell appeared to address one of the critiques regularly leveled at SpaceX by its European rival, Arianespace of France. When SpaceX aims at the commercial launch market, it is mainly targeting Arianespace’s market share, now around 50 percent.

Arianespace and French government officials have said Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is able to undercut Arianespace’s pricing by amortizing Falcon 9’s fixed costs with its large book of U.S. government — up to now, just NASA — business, for which the company charges more.

Arianespace officials contend that if given similar U.S. government contracts, the French-led consortium could lower its commercial launch costs to SpaceX’s range.

Shotwell disputed this.

“It’s more expensive to do these missions,” she said of U.S. government launches compared with commercial missions. “The Air Force asks for more stuff. The missions we do for NASA under the [NASA Launch Services] contract are also more expensive because NASA asks to do more analysis.

“They have us provide more data to them. They have folks that basically reside here in SpaceX, and we need to provide engineering resources to them and respond to their questions. So by definition, the way the government buys missions is more expensive.

“It depends on each individual mission, but the NASA extra stuff is about $10 million. The Air Force stuff is an extra $20 million. And if there is a high security requirement, that can add another $8 million to $10 million. All in, Falcon 9 prices are still well below $100 million even with all of this stuff.”

SpaceX is introducing elements to its Falcon 9 to enable the recovery and reuse of the first stage. The additional weight and power needed to control the first stage’s re-entry for recovery and reuse are already embedded in the Falcon 9 design, Shotwell said. There are no major new hardware or cost items needed to accomplish recovery and reuse, and no reason for Falcon 9 performance to degrade, or prices to increase, to accommodate the recovery mission, she said.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicle, which has now flown successfully three times including two commercial launches to geostationary transfer orbit — the destination of most commercial telecommunications satellites — has about 30 percent more performance capability than what is advertised on SpaceX’s price and capacity specifications, Shotwell said. 

This 30 percent margin is retained by SpaceX, which will use it to accommodate the additional fuel and hardware needed for first-stage recovery operations.

This margin may be one reason that SpaceX was able to sign its two most recent contracts, with SES of Luxembourg, for the launch of two satellites, each weighing around 5,330 kilograms — or 10 percent more than the vehicle’s advertised payload limit.

“The vehicle we plan on recovering is the one we are currently using,” Shotwell said. “It is already sized. Once we get to where we are recovering and reflying components, the price will come down from right now. It certainly won’t go up.”

SpaceX hopes to be able to recover a first stage on land this year following one of its missions, and to reuse a stage as early as 2015, she said, adding that it remained unclear whether a stage recovered at sea could be flown again.

SpaceX’s next flight, a Falcon 9 carrying a Dragon capsule to the international space station under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, had been scheduled for March 30, with a backup date of April 2, but NASA’s latest unofficial manifest says the launch date is in flux.

The original mid-March flight was postponed for several reasons, a minor one being oil contamination found on a blanket in the Dragon’s unpressurized cargo hold.

Shotwell said data transfer “buffering” between SpaceX in California and NASA’s control center in Houston was a separate issue that also needed additional time to resolve. Also arguing for more time were range-safety issues related to the Falcon 9 trajectory as the vehicle’s first stage makes postmission re-entry and landing maneuvers, even if it comes down at sea.

A fourth reason for the delay was that SpaceX’s Dragon team was “in a kind of a time crunch” to prepare the redesigned Dragon’s avionics suite. The new avionics system allows the Dragon to accommodate more NASA space station freezers by providing more power to the cargo racks that hold the freezers during launch and berthing at the space station.

Shotwell said that after analysis, SpaceX determined that the oil on the blanket-type impact shielding in the Dragon trunk came from the manufacturing process and posed no risks to the optical payloads also onboard.

“It’s worth saying that the trunk never had any contamination-control requirements on it,” Shotwell said. “Taking on the optical payloads, we were all kind of leaning forward to make this work. We were operating on a best-efforts basis.”

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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