Commercial Crew Market Study Generates Small Firestorm

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WASHINGTON — NASA is downplaying the significance of a recent study by the Aerospace Corp. that concludes the agency could pay up to $20 billion over 15 years to foster private development and operation of a single, viable commercial crew transportation system.

According to the federally funded research group’s findings, presented Feb. 28 to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Associate Administrator Christopher Scolese, the agency’s out-of-pocket cost to ferry astronauts between Earth and the international space station aboard privately developed space taxis could exceed $100 million per seat — significantly more than the agency currently pays to fly astronauts to the orbiting outpost aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said the Aerospace Corp. analysis, paid for by the agency’s Independent Program and Cost Evaluation office, led by Michael Hawes, is one of many commissioned to assess the business case for private space taxis.

“The Aerospace Corporation used their own assumptions for many of the inputs to the analysis; they did not use proprietary data inputs from companies developing commercial crew systems or from NASA, which makes their analysis of limited use,” Braukus said in a April 5 email, one day after a set of Aerospace Corp. briefing charts on the study surfaced on NASA Watch.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an advocacy group here, blasted the report’s assumptions as not based in reality, and said many of its findings are flawed.

“Given that the commercial spaceflight industry finds many of the model inputs, assumptions and assertions in the white paper to be incorrect or inaccurate, no findings or conclusions from the white paper’s analysis should be considered accurate or of significance in any real-world setting without significant further review and industry input,” the group said in a lengthy rebuttal issued April 4.

Specifically, the CSF said the Aerospace study is focused on hypothetical spacecraft rather than vehicles currently in development; assumes private tickets for seats aboard space taxis would be sold at a loss; uses an arbitrary fixed-cost estimate of $400 million per company; ignores potential cost savings that could result from vehicle reusability; underestimates both commercial and NASA demand for seats aboard privately built spacecraft; fails to account for the increasing per-seat cost of Soyuz flights; and characterizes the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets as government-developed systems. The CSF said the program under which those vehicles were developed has more in common with commercial initiatives like NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

Los Angeles-based Aerospace Corp., in an undated explanation of the study and its methodology, said the analysis was merely intended to develop a modeling tool that could be applied to a variety of data.

“The results shown to NASA and Congress recently were not intended to represent any specific real world scenario,” the company said in a memo obtained by Space News. “We modeled a scenario utilizing data from as long as 10 months ago in order to demonstrate the tool’s viability, not the viability of any specific commercial crew transportation system.”

Aerospace Corp. said it initiated the work on its own in late 2009. Some time later Hawes’ office asked for, and funded, an expanded and refined analysis of the initial work, which relied on historical data to develop its business-case model.

“The results were not expected to reflect what the commercial community has been developing,” the Aerospace memo says, adding that different assumptions could be used “to produce significantly different results.”

Meanwhile, Braukus said, NASA is wrapping up a much more comprehensive commercial market analysis that was called for in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. “The Aerospace report was a completely different type of analysis than what was requested in the Authorization Act for the Commercial Market Assessment,” Braukus said in the email. “The objective of the Aerospace work, as it was described in the report, was ‘to provide ballpark results for what it would take to make a stand alone private enterprise business case close.’”

Braukus said the objective of the congressionally mandated assessment is to examine the potential nongovernment market for commercially developed crew and cargo transportation systems and capabilities.

“Thus, NASA does not intend to incorporate any results from the Aerospace work into the Commercial Market Assessment,” he said. “However, we will compare its findings to other studies or analyses of the business case for commercial crew,” such as those performed by Futron Corp. and SAIC, he said.

 

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