The Right Move
On August 14, SpaceX launched the last of its new first-generation Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, for a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). This was the last time Elon Musk's rocket company will fly unused an Dragon spacecraft. This quite historic launch was also the 12th mission SpaceX has flown for NASA, as part of the NASA-SpaceX partnership and the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program.
Flying aboard rockets developed by commercial space companies like SpaceX wasn't always NASA's style. The CRS and its concurrent Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program were conceptualized after 2003, and the initial investment to SpaceX came in 2006. The first Dragon flew to the ISS in 2012.
Since then, according to a new study published by Edgar Zapata from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the agency has been able to save hundreds of millions in total through all the missions launched in tandem with SpaceX. Zapata studied the finances of both NASA and SpaceX, and found that investing in the latter saved the former from exorbitant costs necessary to develop its own rockets and spacecraft.
For instance, Zapata noted how a CRS launch with SpaceX only costs NASA $89,000 per kilogram of cargo, whereas it would've been around $272,000 per kilogram if NASA developed its own cargo spacecraft. Zapata also estimated that a crewed launch with SpaceX would only cost $405 million using a Dragon that ferries four people. Meanwhile, a Boeing Starliner — scheduled for a maiden flight in 2019 — would cost some $654 million. Both are considerably cheaper, around 37 to 39 percent of what NASA would have spent on developing its own spacecraft.
The Future of Space Exploration
NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot, Jr. previously told Futurism that the future of spaceflight and exploration is in the hands of private space companies like SpaceX. Zapata says that this was an option that's been considered in previous decades.
"There were indications that commercial space transportation would be a viable option from as far back as the 1980s," Zapata wrote. However, "when the first components of the ISS were sent into orbit [in] 1998, NASA was focused on ambitious, large single stage-to-orbit launchers with large price tags to match."
Reusable rocket and spacecraft technology is making this possible for less. While some have criticized SpaceX for taking money from the government, these investments — made in 2006, 2011, and then 2014 — have actually benefited the government more.
"Considering NASA invested only about $140M attributable to the Falcon 9 portion of the COTS program, it is arguable that the US Treasury has already made that initial investment back and then some merely from the taxation of jobs at SpaceX and its suppliers only from non-government economic activity," wrote Zapata. Of course, these investments also helped launch SpaceX to the forefront of exploration, allowing it to work with other countries and companies as well.
The NASA-SpaceX partnership will continue, and SpaceX will also be extending its services to the U.S. Air Force. Aside from government missions, SpaceX is getting ready for its ambitious mission to Mars, which has been the main driver for the company's rocket technology development.