SpaceX, Boeing, Aim for 2017 Crew Flights

A press conference held at Johnson Space Center on Monday did not delivery any real surprises regarding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, but it did fill in a few missing details regarding agreements which have been embargoed since mid-September due Sierra Nevada’s bid protest. It also provided a bit more information about SpaceX’s upcoming plans.

Some of the relevant details;

CST-100 Image Credit Boeing

Image Credit Boeing

Both Boeing and SpaceX will conduct an initial uncrewed flight test of their respective systems before proceeding to a crewed flight test. Boeing anticipates the former will take place in July 2017 and the latter in December of that year. Respectively they will mark the 74th and 80th flights of the Atlas V booster, and the crewed test will include one Boeing and one NASA astronaut. A pad abort test will take place in April 2017.

SpaceX on the other hand, anticipates its pad abort test to occur within the next “month or so,” with shipment of the test article from Hawthorne, Ca. to Cape Canaveral “imminent.”  A flight abort test, which Boeing is not conducting, is still scheduled to happen later this year. Launch of the automated test flight would take place in 2016, with a crewed test flight to take place in 2017. According to Shotwell, the Falcon 9, now looking to its 15th flight, will have flown “at least 50 times” before the first crew steps aboard.

Dragon 2 Reveal Image Credit: S Money

Dragon 2 Reveal
Image Credit: S Money

If both companies are able to adhere to the schedules announced, SpaceX would be the first to return US manned spaceflight to American soil since STS-135 in July 2011, but as announced by program manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing would make the first scheduled run under the operational phase. Presumably, SpaceX, through its earlier test flight, would still have the honor of bringing back the American flag left aboard ISS for the first crew to return, but that was not immediately clear.

As has been reported previously, each vendor is guaranteed at least two, and potentially as many as six flights, with the average seat price quoted as $58 million, some $12 million per seat less than the US is paying Russia.  When asked about the specifics, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said her company’s price would be not substantially more than what it is charging NASA under the current CRS resupply contract ($133 million) while Boeing’s Elbon merely said it would be “less than” the Russian price.

Looking at the “average price,” it is clear SpaceX is offering the better deal, and by a considerable margin. With four crew members constituting NASA’s planned rotation under Commercial Crew, a seat on the Dragon 2, which SpaceX has previously said would be around $140 million per flight, would come in at $35 million for a four crew mission, although Shotwell was quick to note that Dragon 2 can fly with seven total, or five with NASA’s minimum cargo mass included.

If the $35 million figure is accurate, it is difficult to see how Boeing’s price is actually “less than” Russia’s, as simple math would suggest it is closer to $81 million.  (In 2013, SpaceX and Boeing were quoted as offering seats on Dragon 2 and CST-100 to Bigelow Aerospace at the fixed price $26.25 and $36.75 million respectively.)

Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders sought to dissuade people from attempting to dissect what she referred to a “derived price” developed from an average over a five year time frame as well as the slightly different cargo capacities of the two vehicles, but given the disparity between the two bids at $1.75 and $3.01 billion, the comparisons are inevitable.

About that ascent abort test for SpaceX, responding to a question, Gwynne Shotwell said that the first stage booster which will be used will be making its first flight as a reusable test article. That answer, combined with a tweet from Elon Musk over the weekend referencing a second version of the automated spaceport drone ship currently under construction for use on the West Coast would appear to dovetail with previously statements that the ascent abort will occur out of Vandenberg. It may also be a partial explanation of why SpaceX can afford to perform the test, whereas the much bigger Boeing elected to not to undertake one at all. Along those lines, Shotwell cited “environmental issues” as a factor in determining the timetable.

Perhaps the most interesting item to mentioned today was not Commercial Crew, but NASA’s plans for going to Mars.

The event began with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, as he routinely does, attempting to place the Commercial Crew program within the context of his agency’s very ambiguous plans for going to Mars. In taking on the challenge of Low Earth Orbit the logic goes, NASA is freed up to use its resources to pursue Mars. When asked who would make it to Mars first, NASA or SpaceX however, Shotwell offered a slightly different answer, pausing momentarily and then saying “I think its gonna take a village to get to Mars.” Bolden then countered  by observing that in leading the way, NASA would depend not only on international partners , but on private industry as well. A subtle difference for sure, but an interesting one given the premise of the question, and the looming debate which is guaranteed to erupt with the debut of Falcon Heavy scheduled later this year.


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6 Comments on "SpaceX, Boeing, Aim for 2017 Crew Flights"

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  1. Has NASA tipped its hand regarding the eventual proportion of Boeing vs. SpaceX CCT flights? If Boeing comes in at $270 M per launch, average seat price would then be less than Soyuz; and if Boeing is awarded 70% of CCT launches, total average price (assuming $140 M per SpaceX launch) comes out to $58 M per seat.

    • Or it could just be that NASA quoted the $58M figure as an upper limit, to reassure Boeing that it’s still in competition for unassigned flights. That may be the reason we were warned not to read too much into the figure, which would come down substantially if those flights are awarded to SpaceX.

    • Considering that the award was for both Boeing and SpaceX to have 1 test launch and 2 to 6 operational launches (or 3 to 7 total launches each), the 30/70 split proposed above sounds like I’ve got it pegged, both in terms of what NASA was implying about not reading too much into the $58M average, AND in terms of the actual Boeing launch costs. In other words, $58M is a worst-case scenario assuming Boeing wins all 4 additional launches and SpaceX wins zero.

  2. Another thing to consider (not yet on any official radar) is that it seems likely that NASA will eventually want to replace at least one (perhaps both) of the Soyuz “lifeboats” permanently docked to ISS with one of the larger American spacecraft. It might make sense for NASA to buy a spare CST-100 for that purpose, given their approach to radiation-hardened electronics might be more long-term than SpaceX. Such a purchase might soften the blow to Boeing if more launches are awarded to SpaceX.

  3. And one final note: SpaceX has been quick to note that they could transport a fifth person to ISS in Dragon 2, and still make the cargo mass requirements. This would appear to signal that they may be considering entering the space tourism business, stealing some of that market from the Russians.

    Amazing how many pies SpaceX is putting their fingers into right now.

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