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NASA Watchdog Report Tightens Debate on Cost of SpaceX Vs. Boeing spaceships



  SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner are being developed to transport astronauts to and from NASA's International Space Station. (SpaceX / Boeing Illustrations)
SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner are being developed to transport astronauts to and from NASA's International Space Station. (SpaceX / Boeing Illustrations)

Boeing is expected to pay significantly more per seat than SpaceX for spacecraft astronaut rides to the International Space Station, partly because an increase in the fixed cost contract was negotiated. The NASA Office of the Inspector General reports in a surveillance report.

The 53-page report released on Thursday estimates the cost per seat for flights with Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule to $ 90 million, which would be more than $ 84 million or so NASA paid the Russians for travel on their Soyuz spaceship. In contrast, the price for a seat on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule was estimated at $ 55 million.

In response, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted: " That does not seem to be right ." He said it was " not fair that Boeing gets so much more for the same. "

Boeing questioned the way the numbers were calculated. While NASA Commercial Crew Program officials generally accepted the report's findings, they said that the higher payoff from Boeing had been fairly negotiated.

The Inspector General's report met with criticism over cost overruns and delays in the development of commercial-area taxis for transporting astronauts to and from the space station. NASA has depended on the Russians since the departure of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011.

The first crewed flights for the Dragon and Starliner crew are already two years behind the original schedule, and the report says "Final Vehicle certification for both contractors is likely to be delayed until the summer of 2020, based on the number of ISS and CCP certification requirements that still need to be reviewed and validated. "

The certification would take place after the first demonstration flights with crew for both spacecraft. Currently scheduled for early 2020.

The report states that, due to delays, NASA may have fewer staff in the US orbital area of ​​the station by 2020 must deal with – a situation that would also affect Canadian, European and Japanese astronauts.

A letter to Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut who serves as deputy administrator for human exploration and operations, said NASA is already negotiating with the Russians for more Soyuz seats than insurance policies.

The report acknowledged that the delays were due to technical challenges in parachutes, propulsion systems and launching systems – but it accused NASA managers of having dealt with these challenges. "Taken together, these factors can increase the risk of significant system failure or further delay the launch of commercial crew flights to the ISS," the report said.

  The NASA Office of the Inspector General has prepared this comparison of the Boeing The CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon transport systems are based on an analysis of NASA information. The average cost per seat was estimated assuming four astronauts per spacecraft and using publicly available information. (NASA OIG Graphic)
The Inspector General's NASA office made this comparison of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon transport systems based on an analysis of NASA information. The average cost per seat was estimated assuming four astronauts per spacecraft and using publicly available information. (NASA OIG Graphic)

Actions related to Boeing met with particular criticism. NASA's original contracts provided Boeing $ 4.82 billion to develop Starliner, while SpaceX received $ 3.14 billion to develop Crew Dragon. However, the report states that NASA agreed in 2016 to pay Boeing $ 287.2 million over the previously agreed fixed price to remedy a perceived 18-month flight gap for four crew-missions after the third flight.

The justification was "to make sure the company continues as the second commercial crew vendor," the report said. In fact, the report quoted unnamed high-ranking NASA officials as saying that Boeing would not continue working on Starliner if it did not get more money.

According to the evaluators, most of the increased payout was unnecessary because NASA had other options to reduce the risk of a flight gap.

The appraisers also criticized NASA executives for finding that "SpaceX did not have a chance to propose a solution, even though the company had previously offered shorter lead times than Boeing."

In his letter, Bowersox said NASA had followed the recommendations of the report to tighten oversight of the Commercial Crew Program. However, he questioned the claim that the increased payout to Boeing was unnecessary or unreasonable.

"NASA estimates that NASA may have negotiated better prices for PCMs [post-certification missions]according to OIG [Office of the Inspector General]. However, this is an opinion that comes three years later and there is no evidence to conclude that Boeing has agreed to a price reduction.

On request, Boeing and SpaceX provided explanations to the report. Here's what SpaceX had to say:

" SpaceX and NASA have worked closely together and applied all that we've learned from extensive testing and analysis to improve our systems and ensure that Crew Dragon is one of the safest, the most reliable spaceship ever built. For our company, there is nothing more important than manned space flight, and we look forward to flying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station early next year.

And here is a statement by Boeing on the price discussion:

"We do not agree with this average seat price assessment. The objective of the Commercial Crew program is to provide NASA astronauts and international partner astronauts with safe, reliable and redundant access to the International Space Station and to promote long-term commercial access to near-Earth orbit. The price changes for PCM 3-6 gave NASA additional flexibility and resiliency and significantly shortened the mission cycle from 32 months to the start of the after-approval (ATP). Boeing can now offer two flights with crew of the CST-100 Starliner per year. In addition, Boeing flies for NASA equivalent of a fifth passenger in cargo, which is why the price per seat should be calculated on the basis of five seats.

NASA provides additional flexibility and planning security to improve readiness for future missions by offering single missions for PCMs 3-6, which were included in the price table in the original contract. This flexibility means that Boeing is taking a much greater financial risk and already supporting NASA in critical decisions that are critical to optimizing future ISS operations. Doing so under the structure of the original contract would have increased costs and planning uncertainty and limited NASA's flexibility in mission planning. This also facilitates NASA's shorter lead time and provides more flexibility in adjusting launch data within this lead time. Boeing now also has all the upfront costs that NASA will have to pay after each mission has been formally ordered and given the Continuing Approval (ATP).

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