NASA has finalized plans to purchase another five Crew Dragon launches from SpaceX, securing its astronauts access to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2030.
The award comes three months after NASA first issued a notice of intent to purchase the additional missions from SpaceX. The space agency signed a different contract for three more Crew Dragon launches just three months before the latest order, meaning that NASA has purchased eight new Crew Dragon launches from SpaceX in six months – doubling the spacecraft’s future launch manifest in the process.
NASA has selected Dragon for 5 additional @Commercial_Crew missions to and from the @Space_Station, which brings the total number of astronaut Dragon flights for NASA up to 14! https://t.co/IjHdp5io4R pic.twitter.com/XwjuxRt16s
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) August 31, 2022
August 31st’s order adds Crew missions 10 through 14 to Crew Dragon’s future roster and brings its total number of planned operational NASA astronaut launches to 14. NASA says the five extra missions will cost $1.44 billion and raise the total value of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon CCtCap contract to $4.93 billion.
Factoring in a sum of approximately $2.74 billion that funded development and three test launches, NASA will ultimately pay an average of $328 million for each of 15 productive Crew Dragon astronaut launches (including Demo-2, the spacecraft’s first crewed test flight). Assuming four astronauts will fly on each operational launch, the average price per astronaut launched through 2030 will be $85 million. For its latest contract, NASA will pay $288 million per launch and $72 million per astronaut.
Crew-10 through Crew-14 will likely occur in the late 2020s, meaning that the space agency may be saving even more money than is immediately obvious once accounting for 5-8 years of inflation.
SpaceX’s fifth operational NASA Crew Dragon launch is scheduled as early as early October. (NASA)
NASA’s decision to award SpaceX eight new Crew Dragon launch contracts in 2022 is a major blow to its second Commercial Crew provider, Boeing. It also emphasizes just how good of a deal the agency got with SpaceX. Once said to be “well positioned to fly [its] first crew in early 2020,” Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule finally completed its first (mostly) successful uncrewed test flight in May 2022. Boeing and NASA are now working towards February 2023 for the spacecraft’s first crewed test flight, ensuring that its first operational astronaut launch will have to wait until late 2023 after the earliest.
Starliner still has only six operational launch contracts, the same six of the two to six contracts originally guaranteed to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014. Thanks to NASA’s fixed-price contract with Boeing, the agency won’t have to cover the almost $700 million that years of Starliner delays and a test flight do-over have cost the company, but it will still end up paying a total of $5.1 billion – an extraordinary $850 million per launch.
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft nears the ISS for the first time during its second uncrewed test flight. (ESA)
Even using iffy Boeing calculus that claims NASA will get five seats of value per launch by adding an extra astronaut or additional cargo, the space agency would end up paying $170 million per astronaut through the late 2020s. If only four astronauts launch on each Starliner, the average price per seat rises to $213 million.
Unless Boeing is able to find a commercial customer willing to burn tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to avoid launching private astronauts with SpaceX, it’s not impossible to imagine that it will never recoup the losses it has incurred developing Starliner. Worse, without Boeing paying out of pocket to certify Starliner to launch on a different rocket, the spacecraft will be without a certified launch vehicle after its sixth operational launch.
Meanwhile, on top of its new NASA contracts, Crew Dragon has already supported two private astronaut launches, and SpaceX has contracts for five more private Dragon launches through 2024. Put simply, thanks in part to the void left behind by Boeing’s surprising shortcomings, SpaceX now owns the western market for crewed orbital spaceflight and will likely continue to dominate it throughout the 2020s.