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NASA Figures Show That Commercial Rocket Costs Less Than Half as Much as Government-Run Effort Would

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launching

Falcon 9 lifts off on a 2010 test flight. Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

SpaceX has been the darling in the past few years of the so-called NewSpace movement—private companies aspiring to do the spacefaring work that was once limited to the space programs of the world's superpowers.

The California-based company, headed by Paypal co-founder Elon Musk, has already completed successful demonstrations of its Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon crew capsule to much fanfare. If further unmanned tests go smoothly, SpaceX might use those vehicles in coming years to carry U.S. astronauts to orbit. NASA, for its part, has struggled with cancellations and shifts of direction (some internal, and some imposed by lawmakers) for its own planned rockets and crew capsule.

Now a column by Florida Today's John Kelly points out that the much-trumpeted efficiencies of private enterprise do indeed work for SpaceX. A NASA study (pdf), Kelly notes, found that the Falcon 9 would have cost much more had it been developed within the confines and culture of NASA.

Initial estimates using the NASA/Air Force Cost Model, or NAFCOM, found that NASA would have needed $4 billion to build the Falcon 9, more than twice as much as a NAFCOM-derived estimate for SpaceX. But then NASA personnel visited SpaceX to learn more about the company's rockets and found that more hardware was either off-the-shelf or derived from the smaller Falcon 1 rocket than had been assumed in the study. So, an updated estimate based on those factors and others made cost savings through commercialization even more dramatic. As Kelly notes:

Follow-up research and a revised estimate—based on SpaceX's early success with the Falcon 1 rocket and other factors—led to lower cost figures but the same giant disparity between the privatized model ($443 million) and the NASA way of doing things ($1.4 billion).

That estimate, which includes two test flights, roughly jibes with the company's own figures. Musk wrote in a May blog post that SpaceX needed four and a half years and just over $300 million to develop Falcon 9 "from a blank sheet to first launch."

So the smaller, nimbler SpaceX has the demonstrated ability, both on paper and in practice, to produce rockets more quickly and cheaply than NASA does. That is no great surprise—NASA is hardly a model of entrepreneurial efficiency. The next question for SpaceX and for other NewSpace upstarts, which has not yet been answered, is whether they can match or better NASA's safety record while also turning a profit.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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