The SpaceX Starship: Revolutionary, If It Works (Which It Probably Will – Eventually)

Source: Wikipedia – Super heavy-lift launch vehicle

A.  Introduction

SpaceX is currently developing a truly gigantic rocket it has named Starship.  It would be revolutionary.  Not only would it lift a heavier payload than the Saturn V, the rocket that took Apollo to the Moon and until now the heaviest lift launch vehicle that has successfully flown, but Starship is also being designed to be fully reusable.  Both the first stage and the orbiter would fly back to the launch pad, where they each would be caught in mid-air as they land by arms extending from the launch tower.  They would then be refueled and after minimal reinspection be able to take off again, within hours.  And each flight would cost only $2 million.

If all this works as intended.  And that remains to be seen.  But there are good reasons to believe it will, eventually.

It is certainly likely that there will be explosions or other causes of failure in the early orbital test flights now upcoming, and that even once operational the turn-around time will at first be a good deal longer than a few hours and the cost a good deal more than $2 million for a flight.  But even a cost that is ten times higher would still be incredibly cheap for such a lift capacity.  And the iterative process SpaceX follows of testing to failure, learning from the test, redesigning to address the problems found, and then testing to failure again, is a process that has allowed SpaceX to work through to a successful design.  It took some years of such tests before the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket of SpaceX was successfully flown back to the launch site (or to a platform on a drone ship in the ocean) and landed, and then reused after some refurbishment.  But eventually, after a number of test failures, SpaceX worked out how to do this.  It is now routine.  And prior to SpaceX demonstrating this technology, the established view was that this would be basically impossible for an orbital launch vehicle.

Furthermore, in April 2021 NASA awarded SpaceX a close to $3 billion contract to build a variant of the Starship orbiter that would carry NASA astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back.  It did this following a year of NASA engineers closely examining the SpaceX proposal (along with competing proposals from two others), reviewing the Starship plans with full access to all the technical information and to the development and testing plans.  NASA concluded the SpaceX Starship system could be relied upon to deliver on its proposal.  This is a tremendously important vote of confidence in the Starship system.

This post will first review the Starship system and what it promises to deliver.  It is really pretty astounding.  The big question is whether it will work, and that remains to be seen.  But the post will review the development process SpaceX is following, and contrast that with the sharply different process NASA is following with its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.  The SLS, with its high cost and long delays, was discussed in some detail in an earlier post of this blog.  The contrasts in the approaches taken are stark.  The SLS will be a similarly sized rocket as Starship (a bit smaller), but has followed a very different design and development process.  Development began in 2011, with a design where the major components (the engines and the solid-fuel boosters strapped on the side) were the same as those used on the Space Shuttle or from other existing sources.  This should have saved both time and expense.  Yet despite this, there has yet to be a test flight of the SLS even though it is now more than ten years later.  The much delayed first flight is now scheduled (as I write this) for February 2022 (and had been set as November 2021 just a few months ago), and it is expected that recently discovered problems will delay this further.  Hopefully that first (and only planned) test flight will succeed.  If it does not, it is not at all clear what will happen to NASA’s plans to return to the Moon under the Artemis program.  As discussed in my earlier post, each SLS costs $2 billion to build, and under current production plans a second one will not be available for another two years in any case.

The Starship system that NASA has chosen to carry crew to the Lunar surface and back is also quite astounding.  This post will review what it would be able to do, and contrast this with the two competing proposals that NASA considered – the proposal from a team with Blue Origin (owned by Jeff Bezos) in the lead and one with the firm Dynetics in the lead.  The contrast is huge, where the SpaceX Starship proposal would deliver far more in several different dimensions (and at far lower cost).

The capabilities of the Starship also immediately raise the question of whether NASA should make use of it in a total revamp of its Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.  Instead of stuffing the crew into the relatively tiny Orion capsule for the trip from the Earth to lunar orbit, launched on an SLS that costs $2 billion per launch, why not use what would otherwise be an empty Lunar Starship for the journey?  The Lunar Starship will not only have all the life support systems needed by the crew for a multi-week journey, but the fully furbished habitable volume on the Lunar Starship is over 1,000 cubic meters, vs. just 9 cubic meters in the Orion capsule.  Certain technical issues would of course need to be worked out, but that should not be an insurmountable obstacle.

There likely will be obstacles, however, but political ones rather than technical ones.  This post will conclude with a discussion of those issues.  In my earlier blog post, I estimated that just for the period from when the programs started to what is planned by FY2023, Congress will have appropriated and NASA will have spent a total of $21.8 billion on the Orion capsule and a total of $32.4 billion on the SLS, for a total of $54.2 billion on them together.  It would be embarrassing, to say the least, to recognize that they turn out not to be needed, and that the SpaceX Starship system would not only be far less expensive but also far more capable.  And politicians do not appreciate being embarrassed.  While the politicians have asserted that they have been funding these programs to achieve certain space exploration goals, what appears to have driven the support of a number of the key Senators and Congressmen on the committees that set the NASA budget has been less the space exploration goals and more the resulting number of well-paid jobs in their constituencies.  Seen in this light, the high cost of the SLS / Orion systems is not a flaw but a feature.

But this is not sustainable.  How much the US government will spend on space exploration is limited, and treating it as a jobs program will mean national goals will either be long delayed or never met at all.  And while private companies such as SpaceX can help NASA achieve national goals (faster and at lower cost), they can only help if they are used to help.  Congress has often been opposed, with both Democrats and Republicans unfortunately aligned on this.  China is now moving fast in its space exploration program, and NASA may soon be left far behind if Congressional priorities do not change.

B.  The SpaceX Starship, and the SpaceX Approach to Development and Testing

SpaceX is currently developing, and actively testing, the extremely large rocket it has named Starship.  If it works, it will be revolutionary.  Starship will be huge – larger than the Saturn V as well as the SLS – and capable of delivering to low earth orbit a payload of 100,000 kg initially with this expected to grow to 150,000 kg or more as it is further developed.

The diagram at the top of this post shows Starship in comparison to other heavy-lift vehicles to give you a sense of its size.  It is huge.  And while the design is still evolving as its testing program proceeds (with the version of Starship shown in the diagram from a year or two ago), its basic dimensions will remain the same.  The Saturn V is well known, and is the heaviest-lift launch vehicle that has ever flown.  The SLS Block 1 will be the initial version of the SLS, with its first flight test now planned for 2022.  The SLS Block 2 Cargo is a planned follow-on SLS variant – still to be developed – that would have the heaviest lift capacity of the SLS series if it is ever built.   Finally, the N1 launch vehicle was developed, in secrecy at the time, in the USSR in the 1960s to carry its cosmonauts to the Moon.  There were four tests between 1969 and 1972.  Each failed with an explosion, and the especially spectacular explosion on the second test on July 3, 1969 – just 13 days before the launch of Apollo 11 – has been estimated to have been comparable in magnitude to that of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It was the biggest man-made non-nuclear explosion in history.

The SpaceX Starship will be a two-stage vehicle, with a first stage (named the Super Heavy) that will have a thrust at take-off that is more than double what it was on the Saturn V.  The first stage will initially use 29 of the newly-developed engines named Raptor, with a plan to increase this to 33 Raptor engines very soon.  And that number might rise to as many as 37.  The engines burn liquid methane with liquid oxygen.  The second stage will be powered by 6 Raptor engines (three optimized for burning in the vacuum of space and three for operation at ground level), with the spacecraft carrying the cargo and/or crew fully integrated into it.  Confusingly, this second stage/spacecraft has been named Starship, which is also the name of the whole rocket including the first stage Super Heavy booster.  To ease possible confusion, some refer to the second stage/spacecraft as the “Orbital Starship”, and I will as well.  The Orbital Starship would come in several variants, with vehicles just for cargo (Cargo Starship), for a human crew (Crew Starship), and to serve as a fuel depot in space (Fuel Depot Starship).  And as will be discussed in more detail below, NASA has extended a contract to SpaceX to build a variant that will take an astronaut crew to the Lunar surface and back (Lunar Starship).

Importantly, all components of Starship will be fully reusable, with the plan that there would be just minimal to no maintenance required between launches.  The Super Heavy booster would return to the launch site and relight some subset of its engines for a soft landing.  Indeed, as noted above, the plan is that it would come down precisely at the launch tower, where two extended arms on the tower would catch it as it (slowly) comes down.  No landing legs would be required.

The Orbital Starship would also be fully reusable.  It will have heat shield tiles that are chemically very similar to those used on the Space Shuttle, along with wing flaps and tail (see the drawing above) to guide the Orbital Starship as it re-enters the atmosphere and then lands.  A restart of a subset of the engines near the end will allow for a soft landing.  And as with the Super Heavy, the plan is for it to return to the launch tower to be caught as it comes down by the two large arms.  The plan (and hope) then is that the Starship and Super Heavy could be re-attached, refueled, and launched again within hours, with just minimal inspection required to ensure all was fine.

The payload will also be huge.  The immediate design goal is a payload to low Earth orbit of 100 tons.  This would be more than the SLS (95 tons in the initial, Block 1, version), although less than the Saturn V (140 tons).  But SpaceX plans to raise the payload capacity relatively soon to 150 tons through various means, and some have argued it might grow to even more.  As noted above, the number of Raptor engines on the first test flight will be 29, but will soon be increased to 33 and eventually possibly to 37.  Elon Musk (in a tweet on Twitter in July 2021) also mentioned the possibility that the number of Raptor engines on the Orbital Starship might be increased from six to nine at some point.  The additional three would all be the Vacuum Raptor variant.  This flexibility that has been built into the design of the Starship system – where adding core engines does not necessitate a complete revamping – is really quite remarkable.

The power of each engine will also soon be raised.  The Raptor 2 engine, which is already now starting to be produced, will have 230 or more tons of force – a big increase over the 185 tons of force in the first version of the engine that has been on the test flights thus far.  SpaceX also has a history of upgrading the performance of its rockets over time.  The initial version 1.0 of the Falcon 9 rocket could carry a payload to low Earth orbit of 9.0 tons.  But this rose to 22.8 tons in the Block 5 model that is now standard (22.8 tons when the boosters are expended, or 16.8 tons when the booster is recovered). That is, the Falcon 9 can now carry to orbit 2 1/2 times what it could when it first flew.

Will Starship work?  That remains to be seen, but testing is underway and there are reasons to be optimistic.  As I write this in December 2021, there have been seven test flights, all (so far) of the Starship upper stage, with simple up and down flights of up to 12.5 kilometers and a landing attempt on each.  There were a series of sometimes spectacular crashes (or as SpaceX calls them, RUDs, for Rapid Unscheduled Disassemblies), but the seventh (and hence final flight of the series) was fully successful, so they have moved on.  The plan now is to conduct a first test of the full Starship, with the Super Heavy plus the Orbital Starship launching from the SpaceX base in Boca Chica, Texas (on the Gulf of Mexico at the border with Mexico).  The first test would be of an almost orbital flight (more than 80% of what a full orbit would be) to land about 100 kilometers northwest of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands.  The Super Heavy would return most of the way to the Boca Chica base but come down softly in a “landing” in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico around 20 kilometers off the coast on this first try.  The Orbiter Starship would come down through the atmosphere, testing its heat shield in particular, to “land” in the waters of the Pacific.

It will be an ambitious first test of the complete rocket, and the likelihood of everything working right the first time is low.  But this is in keeping with the SpaceX development and testing approach (to be further discussed below), which is to test early and often, and then iterate on the designs until they work.  While no date has been publicly announced for this first test (SpaceX is a private company and under no obligation to announce this), the indications are that the aim is for a first flight sometime early in 2022.  However, this will depend on SpaceX receiving necessary permits (related to environmental and safety issues) from the FAA, and it is not clear as I write this when this process will be completed.  While SpaceX ignored this requirement on one of the early test flights of Starship, it is now on notice from the FAA and it is doubtful they will ignore them again.

As noted before, if the design works it would be revolutionary.  It would be fully reusable, with both the first (Super Heavy) and second (Orbital Starship) stages returning not simply to a base but to the very launch tower where they would be caught in mid-air.  Probably the biggest question mark is whether the heat shield that covers one side of the Orbital Starship will prove to be durable and quickly reusable with no maintenance required.  As noted above, the chemical composition of the material is similar to that used on the heat shield for the Space Shuttle.  But on the Space Shuttle, extensive checks and maintenance of the heat shields proved to be necessary after each flight, with this a major contributor to the high cost of the Shuttle.  The original plan (and hope) was that a Space Shuttle could be turned around and flown again within two weeks of its landing from its preceding flight.  This proved impossible.  In the later years of the Shuttle program, each operational Shuttle was generally flying only once a year.

SpaceX has learned and applied important lessons from the experience with the Space Shuttle, and has addressed the heat shield tile issues in two important ways.  First, while most of the over 21,000 heat shield tiles on each Space Shuttle Orbiter had to have a unique shape due to the shape of the Shuttle, most (although not all) of the tiles on the Starship Orbiter will have a standard, hexagonal, shape.  This will make them far easier to replace when needed, as a new, custom-molded, tile will not (normally) need to be made each time.  And second, the tiles on the Starship Orbiter will be attached to built-in spikes on the body of the Starship, rather than attached with just a special glue.  It is hoped this will make them more durable.

If a fully and rapidly reusable design can be made to work, the cost of each flight of the Starship will be incredibly low.  Elon Musk has said that the fuel would cost only about $900,000 on each flight, and with the other operational costs the total would only be about $2 million per flight  This might well be optimistic (Elon Musk often is), but even if it is, say, ten times higher at $20 million per flight, then with a 100,000 kg payload the cost per kilogram will be roughly one-hundredth of the cost per kilogram of a launch on the similarly sized SLS.  And it will be roughly one-tenth of the cost per kilogram of launching on the current lowest-cost launcher – the Falcon Heavy.  And if it truly works out to be $2 million per launch, then the cost will be one-thousandth of what it would cost on the SLS.  This is all pretty incredible – if it works.

The development cost will also be far below what it has cost NASA to develop its similarly sized SLS.  As discussed in the earlier blog post, the cost of developing the SLS will have reached over $32 billion by FY2023.  While the cost of developing the Starship has not been published (SpaceX is a private company), and indeed as not is known by anyone what in the end it might be as development is still underway, Elon Musk has said in an interview that he expects it will come to about $5 billion to complete.  If that turns out to be the case, that would be less than one-sixth the cost of the SLS.  And while it is not clear whether the $5 billion includes the cost of including a section of the Starship to house the crew, if it does then for comparability the cost of developing the Starship with the crew quarters should be compared to the cost of SLS and Orion together  That will total over $54 billion – $32.4 billion for the SLS plus $21.8 billion for Orion.  That would be ten times higher than the cost of developing a crew capable Starship, if the $5 billion estimate for Starship turns out to be correct.

But the design remains to be proved.  While the first test flight will be important, the odds are high that there will be a failure at some point during that test.  As long as the Starship manages not to explode on the launch pad (with the damage that would cause to the launch pad) the flight should be considered a success.  Valuable information will have been obtained.  Particularly valuable, if it gets to that point, will be information on how well the heat shield holds up on re-entry.

The process followed by SpaceX is iterative.  A design is developed, a prototype is built, and it is then quickly tested – to the point of failure to see how much it can do.  Alterations are then made in response to what did not work in the test, with the revised design then soon tested again to take it to the next stage.  Failures are common and indeed expected.  Musk has noted that if failures did not occur, then you were not pushing it far enough.

Importantly also with this approach to development, manufacturing methods need to be developed to allow that frequent testing to the point of failiure to be at a cost per test that is not high. As Musk noted in a tweet in February 2020:

“Hardest problem by far is building the production system of something this big. …  Building many rockets allows for successive approximation. Progress in any given technology is simply # of iterations * [times] progress between iterations.”

This would then also drive design decisions.  For example, and directly counter to the conventional wisdom, the Starship hull and tanks are made of stainless steel.  Steel is seen as heavy – not good for a flying vehicle – and almost all rockets and spacecraft have been made of aluminum.  In the initial design, Starship was to be made of advanced carbon fiber.  Carbon fiber is light and can be made to be strong, but for several reasons the decision was made to switch to stainless steel.  Prominent among them was that stainless steel is relatively easy to work with – it can be bent or reshaped when needed for a design change – plus it is cheap.  As Musk noted in an interview in January 2019 (just after they announced Starship would be made of steel rather than carbon fiber), the type of stainless steel they need costs only about $3 per kg, vs. $135 per kg for carbon fiber.  Furthermore, there is about 35% wastage when one works with carbon fiber, so the true cost per ton for carbon fiber is over $200 per ton.  Any scrap from the stainless steel can be melted down and used.

There are also other advantages to steel, including its far higher melting point (which means less depends on the heat shield tiles, and they can then be made both simpler and lighter).  But the flexibility provided by using a relatively inexpensive and easily worked material is key in the SpaceX iterative development approach with its frequent testing and then redesign.

The decision to switch to stainless steel from the original plan to use carbon fiber also illustrates the flexibility in the overall approach followed by SpaceX.  Elon Musk’s first public announcement of his intention to build what evolved into Starship was made in November 2012.  The Raptor engines that would power the rocket were already being tested on NASA test stands in 2014.  The initial design, then at a 12-meter diameter, was revealed in September 2016.  This was then changed dramatically, to a 9-meter diameter design, in September 2017.  Through this point, the rocket would have been made of carbon fiber.  But then in December 2018, Musk revealed they had decided to switch to stainless steel for the reasons noted above.  And then just four months later, in April 2019, they were already conducting their first flight tests of what they called the Starhopper vehicle.  These were tests basically of the Raptor engine, the use of the engine to allow for a soft landing (and the controls required for this), and the stainless steel design.  The Starhooper test vehicle was tethered for its first “flight” on April 3, 2019 and it rose just one foot.  They then took it to one meter two days later on April 5.  The first untethered flight was in July 2019 to 20 meters, and the final test was in August 2019 when it rose to 150 meters and moved sideways for a short distance before returning to land softly on the ground.

There were then a series of seven tests of what became increasingly similar to the Orbital Starship starting just one year later, between August 2020 and May 2021.  The test vehicle had just one Raptor engine for the first two tests (rising just to 150 meters, and then landing) and then three Raptors in the subsequent tests (where it rose to a height of up to 12.5 km before returning to the pad to try to land).  After a few spectacular crashes and explosions, the Starship had a clean landing at the pad on the seventh and hence final flight.  There were modifications made following each test flight, fixing what went wrong, and they got it right by the seventh such flight.

The iterative SpaceX approach is in sharp contrast to that used by NASA in its development of the far more costly SLS.  As noted before, there has not yet been even one flight test of the SLS design, with the first now scheduled for February 2022 but most likely until sometime later due to recent issues being discovered.  Yet it has been under development since 2011, and arguably from before as the SLS design has many similarities with the Ares V rocket that at that time was under development (but then superseded by the SLS).  And the SLS design is based on existing rocket components, with the four main engines the same as those on the Space Shuttle (the Ares V would have had five of those engines, but otherwise the same).  The two solid-fuel side boosters are also taken from the Space Shuttle (and indeed make use of ones left over from the Space Shuttle program for the initial several SLS boosters to be built – but each with five segments rather than four).  And the second stage of the initial SLS is taken from that used on recent Delta IV rockets.

Drawing from existing rocket components is not necessarily wrong, as it should have led to lower costs and a shorter development period.  It is thus particularly difficult to understand why it has taken so long – with no flight test even after ten years – and why the cost has been so high.  In contrast to SpaceX, NASA has followed an approach where great care (and expense) is taken to try to ensure the full and final design is completely right, with few tests of the overall system.  Indeed just one test flight is planned for the SLS.  If this test fails, it is possible the total program will end.  It will depend on whether they can determine whether the cause of the failure can be found and relatively easily fixed.  A failure would in any case cause major delays of probably years.  A second SLS will not be available for two years (in the current schedule), and it could take longer depending on what they determine was the cause of the failure on the first test.  That is a lot riding on just one test, for a program expected to cost over $32 billion.

C.  Starship as a System to Land Astronauts on the Moon

1)  Introduction

The decision by NASA in April 2021 to select the SpaceX proposal to ferry astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back was highly significant for several reasons.  First, and importantly, it was a clear vote of confidence by NASA management and its technical staff that the Starship system would not only work but would work soon.  NASA teams had thoroughly reviewed the proposal of SpaceX (as well as the two competing proposals, from Blue Origin and Dynetics) for more than a year, with full access to the technical teams at SpaceX.  As a critical, outside, reviewer seeking to find any holes that there might be in the SpaceX plans, NASA’s conclusion that the SpaceX proposal was doable is of great significance.

Second, the use of Starship for this purpose illustrates well the capabilities Starship will have, once it is operational, for not only such lunar missions but more broadly.  It is therefore of interest to examine in some detail what SpaceX is now being contracted to do, how it would work, and what Starship might then be used for, in particular in support of NASA’s goal to return to the Moon and establish a base there.  Contrasting the SpaceX proposal for what NASA is calling its “Human Landing System” (or HLS) with the two competing proposals that NASA considered is also of interest as it highlights how uniquely capable the Starship system is in comparison to the best that others can offer.

2)  Lunar Starship – The SpaceX Proposal for the HLS

NASA has contracted SpaceX for its Human Landing System, where it would serve as one component of the system NASA would use to return men (and as NASA repeatedly emphasizes in its PR materials, also women and a person of color) to the Moon.  Other major components of that system include the Orion spacecraft to carry crew from the Earth to lunar orbit, a “Lunar Gateway” that would be a modest-sized space station in permanent orbit around the Moon and serve as a waystation to transfer crew and cargo to the vehicles that would bring them to the lunar surface, and the SLS rocket that would carry the crew and possibly cargo to lunar orbit from the Earth.

NASA developed this basic plan to return to the Moon in the mid-2010s, with a goal of a first landing back on the Moon by 2028.  This time frame was then greatly compressed in 2019 by the Trump administration, with NASA charged with accomplishing this by 2024.  Vice President Mike Pence (in his capacity as head of the National Space Council) made the announcement, but stated this was “at the direction of the President”.  While the reason for the choice of 2024 was never officially stated, few failed to notice that 2024 would have been the final year of a second Trump term in office, had he not lost the election in 2020.

NASA then modified its plans in accordance with this new mandated schedule.  While the new schedule was never realistic, the revised, compressed, schedule did have real impacts on the mission designs and on contracts signed.  And while NASA has now finally acknowledged that the 2024 target will not be possible, it is still officially following the plans as drawn up during the Trump presidency.  The only change is the first landing on the Moon with a crew would not take place in 2024, as planned before, but in 2025 (which is still far from realistic – several more years should be added).  The new NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced the 2025 date during a press conference in November 2021, and blamed the delay on the seven months lost due to the litigation by Blue Origin protesting the award of the HLS contract to SpaceX (which will be further discussed below).  Bill Nelson is a former Democratic Senator from Florida who has long been closely involved with NASA space programs, flew on the Space Shuttle in 1986 as a member of Congress, and was one of the key Senators (along with Republican Senator Shelby of Alabama and others) who wrote into legislation in 2010 the requirement that NASA develop the SLS (discussed further below).

Based on these still official NASA plans (albeit slightly delayed to 2025), NASA would organize the return to the Moon through a series of missions that it has labeled the Artemis program (where Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology).  Specifically:

a)  Artemis I:  This would be the first, uncrewed, test flight of the SLS together with the Orion capsule, with a scheduled launch date (until recently) of February 2022.  It has been repeatedly delayed.  The original plan (in 2011) was that the SLS would have flown no later than 2017.  And while a new official launch date has not yet been set as I write this, no one expects that it will launch in February, this time due to new problems recently found in a malfunctioning computer for the SLS engines.

When the launch does take place, the SLS would send the unmanned Orion capsule first into Earth orbit and then to the Moon, passing just 60 miles above the lunar surface before entering into a high orbit of 38,000 miles above the Moon.  It would spend several days there and then return to Earth, passing again 60 miles from the lunar surface, and then testing its heat shield in the high-speed re-entry to Earth.  The entire mission would take several weeks.

b)  Artemis II:  This would be the first crewed launch of the SLS and Orion.  Until recently the official plan was for it to go in 2023, but with the acknowledgment that the first crewed landing on the Moon will not be before 2025, it has been pushed to May 2024.  This is still unrealistic.  And as the Office of the Inspector General of NASA noted in a recent assessment of the Artemis program, sending a crew on a mission around the Moon on the first flight of the Orion capsule with life support systems in place is an “operational and safety risk”.  The life support system has not been included in the Orion capsule being tested on the Artemis I mission to save on cost (and maybe time).

Artemis II would be a ten-day mission, with the SLS first launching the Orion into a high Earth orbit, during which the Orion and its life support systems would be monitored to see whether all is working properly.  After about two days it would then be launched to the Moon, but not into lunar orbit.  Rather, it would be sent on a fly-by trajectory where it would use lunar gravity to swing around the Moon, in a large figure-8, and then return directly to Earth.

c)  Artemis III:  This would be the first crewed landing on the Moon, with about one week to be spent on the lunar surface and the whole mission taking about two weeks.  The Orion would be launched on the SLS and would go to a very high lunar orbit (what they call a “Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit”, or NRHO).  The NRHO will have an apogee of 43,500 miles and a perigee of 1,900 miles, and just one orbit will take seven Earth days.

The original plan was that the Lunar Gateway would have been prepositioned in this orbit to serve as a staging area where the Orion would unload its crew and cargo, with the HLS then loaded with the crew and cargo from it to take them to the lunar surface.  But while there may be some components of the Lunar Gateway system ready in lunar orbit by then, there are skeptics on whether it will be ready by whenever Artemis III might be launched.  In that case, the transfers of crew and cargo would be done directly from the Orion to the HLS.  This of course calls into question why it is needed at all.  There might be a quite valid scientific justification for such a facility in orbit around the Moon, but so far the rationale given has been its role in the Artemis missions.

SpaceX won the contract for the HLS.  Under its proposal, a version of the Orbital Starship would be developed which would operate solely in the space environment to ferry crew and cargo back and forth to the lunar surface.  It would never re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and hence would not need the heat shield.  Nor would there be a need for the large wing flaps and tail that on the Orbital Starship are required for aerodynamic control on re-entry to the Earth.  And while I have not seen this written in any of the limited plans that have been made publicly available (details on the Artemis plans that have been made public are surprisingly sketchy), it is not at all clear that the Lunar Starship would require all six of the Raptor engines that are on the Orbital Starship.

Three of those Raptor engines are optimized for operation in the vacuum of space (Vacuum Raptors), and three (Sea-Level Raptors) are optimized to operate in the atmosphere near sea-level for the return and soft-landing on Earth.  I have not been able to find in any reports whether all six are needed for the initial launch into Earth orbit, but with three designed for operation at sea-level, it is not clear that all six are.  Furthermore, the Lunar Starship itself would be lighter than an Orbiter Starship (due to no heat shield nor flaps) so less thrust would be needed.  It is therefore not clear whether the three Sea-Level Raptor engines would be needed, and if not this would also save a good deal of weight.  And with three Raptor engines sufficient for a landing on Earth, one would assume that three would more than suffice to land in the far lower gravity of the Moon.  Indeed, while full details have not been made public, the final phase of the landing of the Lunar Starship on the Moon would not use the Raptor engines at all, but rather a large number (possibly 24) of medium-sized thrusters positioned in the mid-body of the Lunar Starship for the final landing.  This is so that the Raptor engines at the bottom do not blow out an excessive amount of debris as they land.

Keep in mind also that once a vehicle is in orbit, the thrust required in order to, say, launch the craft on to a trans-lunar trajectory (TLI) from Earth orbit to the Moon (or vice versa) does not have to be all that strong.  The power required comes from the combination of thrust times the duration of the burn, so a set of engines with a lower overall thrust could achieve the velocity required by having the engines stay on for a longer period of time.  This is in contrast to a launch from the Earths’s surface, where a high thrust is needed to escape the pull of gravity.  Once in orbit, one does not need to rush this.  So again, it is not clear that one would need to keep all six Raptor engines on the Lunar Starship.  The only issue is whether the initial launch of the Lunar Starship into Earth requires all six Raptors, even though only three are optimized for operation in a vacuum.

The Lunar Starship would be launched into Earth orbit on the Super Heavy booster, as would be standard.  Some set of its own Raptor engines would also be fired for this.  It would then be refueled in Earth orbit before launching to the Moon.  This ability to refuel in orbit is a key ability of the Starship system, and is central to the flexibility that Starship allows in serving multiple objectives.  Prior to the launch of the Lunar Starship, a Fuel Depot Starship would have been launched into Earth orbit, where it would have received fuel carried and then transferred to it from multiple Orbital Starship launches.  The Fuel Depot Starship would essentially be a set of two large fuel tanks (one for liquid methane and one for liquid oxygen – the fuel plus oxidizer used by Starship) that has been well-insulated given the cryogenic temperatures the fuel and oxidizer need to be kept at.  And since the Fuel Depot Starship would be kept in orbit and not land back on Earth, there would be no need for a heat shield nor the wing flaps (nor for all six of the Raptor engines I assume) on it either.

A fully-fueled Starship can hold 1,200 tons of fuel (or technically, fuel plus oxidizer).  But each Starship launched from Earth would be able to carry 100 tons of cargo initially, with this expected to grow relatively soon to 150 tons.  Assuming the 150-ton capacity, Elon Musk noted that eight Starship flights to the Fuel Depot Starship would provide the 1,200 tons needed to fill the tanks on a Lunar Starship.  But how full the tanks would need to be will depend on how much the Lunar Starship would weigh (with no heat shield, wing flaps, nor possibly some of the Raptor engines), and how heavy of a payload would be taken to the lunar surface.  Musk concluded that only four flights to deliver fuel might be sufficient.

Much of this is still not clear – at least in what has been made public – and the final answer will depend on how heavy a payload the Orbital Starship will be able to carry to low Earth orbit (100 tons or 150 tons or something in between), how much lighter the Lunar Starship might be than the regular Orbital Starship, and how heavy the payload to the Moon would be.  And with differing payloads, the number of refueling flights needed might well differ from mission to mission.  None of this has as yet been spelled out, and likely is not yet fully known to anyone given the factors that are still uncertain.  But the key point is that the Starship system provides for flexibility where if additional flights are needed to lift the fuel required for refueling of the Lunar Starship in orbit, they can be carried out as needed.

Fully refueled, the Lunar Starship would then be sent to lunar orbit, to either the Lunar Gateway (if it has been built) or just to the similar orbit, to await the Orion capsule carrying the crew who would be launched on an SLS.  The Lunar Starship would likely already have most or all of the cargo required, but if there is anything additional carried on the Orion it would be transferred along with the crew.  The Lunar Starship would then carry the crew and cargo to the surface of the Moon and serve as a base for the crew during the time they spend on the lunar surface.  On the first mission (Artemis III) the current NASA plan, as noted above, is that this would be one week.  Also, the contract specifications NASA wrote for the HLS competition was that the initial mission to the Moon would be for two astronauts to land while two would remain in lunar orbit at either the Lunar Gateway (if available) or just in the Orion capsule.  After the initial mission, NASA’s plan is that the HLS should be upgradable so as to be able to carry four astronauts to the surface and back.  But given the extremely large capacity of the SpaceX Lunar Starship, it is likely that they will build in the capacity to carry a crew of four from the start.  And if NASA keeps to its plan to use Orion to carry astronauts to lunar orbit from the Earth, then that will be the ceiling as the Orion can carry no more than four (other than in an emergency).

Once the Lunar Starship carries the crew back to the Orion capsule waiting in lunar orbit, the Orion with the crew would return to the Earth.  The Lunar Starship, designed to be fully reusable for this role, would return on its own to Earth orbit where it could then be refueled by multiple regular Starship launches, stocked with any cargo desired, and then sent back to the Moon for the next NASA mission.  And the cycle could keep repeating.

3)  Comparison of the Three HLS Proposals:  SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics

After an initial request for proposals for the HLS in 2019, NASA provided funding in May 2020 to three teams to develop their proposals further.  The three chosen were Space X (with its Lunar Starship); a team that called themselves the “National Team” but which was led by Blue Origin and which is typically referred to as the Blue Origin proposal; and finally a team led by the not too well known aerospace firm Dynetics.  The HLS vehicle of Dynetics is named “ALPACA” (an acronym for Autonomous Logistics Platform for All-Moon Cargo Access).

The three proposals differed radically, both in the approaches taken and in their size.  Such diversity in approaches is certainly good and healthy, but at the same scale they would look like this:

Source: IEEE Spectrum, January 6, 2021

 

The mission plan using the Lunar Starship was described above.  The plans are quite different for the Blue Origin and Dynetics proposals.  A short description of each will be helpful before the three proposals are directly compared.

Blue Origin has worked in partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Draper for its proposed lunar lander.  Its design is the most traditional, with a broad similarity to the design of the lunar lander (the LEM) of the Apollo program.  That is, there will be three separate components, with a descent stage (to be built by Blue Origin itself, and called the “Descent Element”), an ascent stage (to be built by Lockheed Martin, and called the “Ascent Element”), as well as a “Transfer Element” (to be built by Northrup Grumman) that is basically a rocket engine with fuel tanks that would take the proposed HLS from the high lunar NRHO orbit to a low lunar orbit where it would disconnect and the descent stage would take over.  Draper (or Draper Labs) would be responsible for the descent guidance system and flight avionics.

Together they call themselves the “National Team”, with Blue Origin in the lead.  They have named their proposed lunar lander the “Integrated Lander Vehicle” (or ILV).  The firms in the National Team basically come out of the traditional aerospace industry.  While some might consider Blue Origin (owned by Jeff Bezos) as different – as a private, entrepreneurial, company more akin to SpaceX – it really isn’t.  Much of the Blue Origin leadership has been drawn from traditional aerospace firms, and it has followed a development process more similar to that of traditional aerospace than that of SpaceX.  Its CEO, Bob Smith, came to Blue Origin from Honeywell Aerospace, and had previously held senior positions at the United Space Alliance (a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that managed aspects of the Space Shuttle program for NASA) and before that at The Aerospace Corporation.

The three components of the Blue Origin ILV would be flown to the NRHO lunar orbit on three flights of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket that is now under development.  The United Launch Alliance is a 50/50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed, and the Vulcan Centaur would be a follow-on launcher that would replace ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV boosters that are now being phased out.  The Vulcan Centaur will use rocket engines (named “BE-4”) being developed by Blue Origin, but due to repeated delays in delivering those engines, ULA has had to postpone the first test flight of the vehicle.  At one point it was supposed to have flown in 2020.  Most recently, the formal plan is for a test flight in 2022, but some have noted that with the continuing delays at Blue Origin, the first test flight might not be until 2023.

Alternatively, instead of flying the three components of the Blue Origin ILV to the NRHO on three of the still-to-fly Vulcan Centaur launch vehicles (with the three components of the ILV then assembled together into one unit there), it could be flown to lunar orbit already assembled on one flight of the still-to-fly SLS.  But additional SLS vehicles are not available, and would cost $2 billion each if they were.  A single Vulcan Centaur launch is expected to cost perhaps $120 to $150 million.

After receiving the NASA crew and cargo in the NRHO lunar orbit, the Blue Origin ILV would then be taken to a low orbit around the Moon with the Northrup Grumman Transfer Element, after which it would disconnect and the Blue Origin Descent Element would take over for the final descent to the surface.  Using the Transfer Element basically saves on the weight of the larger tanks (and associated hardware) that would otherwise be required if all of the trip from the NRHO to the lunar surface were powered by the Descent Element.  And as discussed below, it might be possible to reuse the Transfer Element on subsequent missions, although this would require that the fuel it needs be brought to the lunar NRHO orbit in some way.

The habitable space in the ILS would be a pressurized cabin on the Ascent Element, and the crew would live there for the time they spend on the lunar surface (about a week on the initial mission).  Cabin space would be tight, and only enough for a crew of two on the initial flights.  NASA’s original plans for the return to the Moon was for a crew of four, but reducing this to two for the initial two flights was one of the simplifications NASA introduced (albeit at a greater overall cost in the long run) when the Trump administration instructed NASA to accelerate its plans and get a crew to the Moon by 2024.  But the intention is for crews of four after the first two missions, and one of the criteria NASA indicated it would consider in the competition for the HLS contract was whether the proposed lander could be relatively easily scaled up to handle a crew of four.  One factor NASA cited when it decided not to accept the Blue Origin proposal for the HLS was that such a scaling-up to accommodate a crew of four would be difficult with its design.  A substantially larger cabin in the Ascent Element would be needed, which would weigh more as well as take more space, which would require not only a substantially redesigned Descent Element to handle the extra weight but also more powerful Ascent Element engines to return the crew to the NRHO lunar orbit.

Once the Ascent Element returns the crew to the NRHO orbit, the crew along with any cargo (lunar rocks) being brought back would transfer to the waiting Orion (or first to the Lunar Gateway, if it is there yet), and then return to Earth on the Orion.

What is not fully clear is what will then happen in terms of reusability of (portions of) the Blue Origin HLS.  The Descent Element can clearly only be used once, as it would remain on the surface of the Moon.  The Ascent Element might in principle be usable again (if designed for this), and possibly also the Transfer Element (if it is designed to hold sufficient fuel to bring it back to the NRHO orbit following its use for bringing the HLS to a low lunar orbit).  However, each would then need to be refueled if they were to be used again, and probably two Vulcan Centaur launches would be required to bring those fuels (which are also different for each – liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the Ascent Element and hypergolic fuels that ignite on contact for the Transfer Element).  it is not clear whether much, if anything, would be saved by developing the tankers to bring those fuels to the NRHO and then transferring them to the Ascent and Transfer Elements.  The tankers would then be thrown away as they could not be returned to Earth, and it is not clear whether much would be saved over just building new copies of the Ascent and Transfer Elements (along with the Descent Element) and then sending them fueled to the NRHO.

Dynetics has given the name ALPACA to its proposed HLS.  Dynetics is a medium-sized aerospace firm, based in Huntsville, Alabama, that was acquired by the defense contractor Leidos just a few months before NASA announced in April 2020 that Dynetics would be one of the three HLS proposals it would fund for further development.  While Dynetics would work with a number of subcontractors (the two most important being Sierra Nevada  Corporation – an aerospace firm – and Draper once again for the avionics), the responsibility for the design is fully with Dynetics.

The Dynetics design is quite radically different from any that have been considered before.  As seen in the artist’s rendering above, the Dynetics ALPACA would be basically a crew cabin with rocket engines and their tanks on the two sides.  Three launches on a Vulcan Centaur would be required to bring it to the NRHO lunar orbit – one for the empty ALPACA and two for the fuel and oxidizer (liquid methane and liquid oxygen).  The fuels would then need to be transferred to the ALPACA in the NRHO lunar orbit, and NASA cited this as a concern when it reviewed the Dynetics proposal.  The technology still has to be developed.  While there would also be in-space transfers of the cryogenic fuel and oxidizer in the SpaceX Starship proposal – and in far greater volumes – this would be done in Earth orbit for the Starship instead of lunar orbit for the Dynetics ALPACA.  If a problem arose, it could be more easily addressed if still in Earth orbit.  Furthermore, development of this refueling ability is central to the Starship system, and hence SpaceX is devoting a good deal of attention to ensure it will be able to do this.  Dynetics and its partners would not require this ability for anything other than their ALPACA.

Once fueled and ready, the Orion would be launched on the SLS, rendevous with the ALPACA in the NRHO lunar orbit for the transfer of the crew and cargo, and the ALPACA would then take the crew to the surface.  NASA found an important issue during its review of the Dynetics proposal, however.  Given the weight of ALPACA, the thrust of its engines, and the fuel that would be carried, NASA concluded that there would be insufficient fuel to keep ALPACA from crashing into the lunar surface, even with no crew or cargo at all.  That is, its payload capacity would be negative.  Dynetics conceded that this was indeed an issue with its current design, but was confident that they would be able to lighten ALPACA sufficiently so that it would be able to carry the crew and cargo and not crash.  NASA, however, was skeptical.  Such spacecraft normally increase in weight as they are further developed, as issues are found requiring modifications to resolve those issues.  It is rare that there would be a reduction in their weight.  And NASA’s bid specification was that the HLS had to be able to bring to the lunar surface a minimum of 865 kg (of crew and cargo, including the space suits needed to venture outside), with a preferred goal of 965 kg.

Assuming it could land, the ALPACA proposal had the significant positive in its design in that the crew cabin would be very close to the ground.  In the Lunar Starship proposal, the habitable crew cabin would be far above the ground, and an elevator arrangement would be used to carry the crew back and forth from the surface.  In the Blue Origin ILV, the crew cabin would also be far above the ground (although not as high up as on the Lunar Starship), but the crew would need to climb down and up a 12 meter (39 foot) ladder in their lunar spacesuits to reach the surface.  That would be cumbersome and probably tiring despite the low lunar gravity (as the lunar spacesuits would be heavy and bulky), and possibly catastrophic should anyone slip and fall.

At the end of the stay, the Dynetics ALPACA would then fly the crew back to the NRHO orbit to link up with the Orion (or Lunar Gateway if it is there), where the crew and any returning cargo would be transferred for the return to Earth on the Orion.  The ALPACA could then wait there, and if to be used on a subsequent mission, could be refueled with two launches of a Vulcan Centaur carrying fuel to it as would have been done on the initial mission.

The designs and mission plans are therefore radically different in the three proposals.  The proposed costs, as well as the payload and other capacities of the resulting bids, also differed dramatically, as summarized here:

Lunar Starship

Integrated Landing Vehicle (ILV)

ALPACA

Lead Firm

SpaceX

Blue Origin

Dynetics

Other Primary Firms

none

Lockheed Martin Northrup Grumman Draper

Sierra_Nevada  Draper

Max Payload to Lunar Surface

100 tons

850 kg

negative

Habitable Volume

1,000 m3

12.4 m3

14.5 m3

Floor Area

325 m2

4.7 m2

5 m2

Max Crew Size

Many (well more than 4 if desired)

   2 at first; redesign    for 4

2 at first; later 4

NASA Development Award, April 2020

$139.6 m

$479.7 m

$239.7 m

Final Bid Price, April 2021

$2.94 b

$6.00 b

$9.08 b

Depending on the number of refueling flights of Starship to Earth orbit, the Lunar Starship could conceivably carry as much as 100 metric tons of cargo to the lunar surface.  This dwarfs the estimated 850 kg that the Blue Origin ILV could bring (which is close to, but slightly below, the minimum NASA specification that it should be able to bring 865 kg to the surface).  And as noted above, NASA does not believe the Dynetics ALPACA would be able to carry even itself to the surface without crashing into it.

The habitable volume of the Lunar Starship would also be enormous, at 1,000 cubic meters.  This is larger than the entire habitable volume of the International Space Station (which is 916 cubic meters), and the ISS had to be slowly assembled in space over a period of 13 years.  In sharp contrast, the habitable volume of the Blue Origin ILV would be just 12.4 cubic meters, which it says would be enough for a crew of two, but acknowledges would not be enough for a crew of four.  Hence the need for an extensive redesign of the Blue Origin ILV if it were to be used for subsequent Artemis missions when they would need to accommodate a crew of four.  And the Dynetics ALPACA would have a volume of 14.5 cubic meters – only a bit more than on the Blue Origin ILV – which it argues would be sufficient for a crew of four.  Keep in mind that the habitable space for the crew is not simply for their landing on the lunar surface, but for their stay there of about one week on the first Artemis mission with this increasing to a planned 30 days on the following Artemis mission and even more later.  Such accommodations would be tight, especially for a crew of four.

Resting on the lunar surface, where there is gravity and not simply the weightlessness of a vehicle in orbit, the floor area will also matter.  For the Lunar Starship, the floor area (on several different floor levels) would come to 325 square meters (3,500 square feet).  That would be the floor area of a very substantial house in the US.  In contrast, the floor area on the Blue Origin ILV would be just 4.7 square meters, and only slightly more at 5 square meters on the Dynetics ALPACA.  Five square meters for a crew of two for a week is not much, and especially not for a crew of four for a month or more on the lunar surface.

NASA announced in April 2020 it would provide funding to the three competitors for them to develop more concretely their proposals.  But the dollar amounts provided were not equal.  NASA was relatively quite generous with providing almost $480 million to the Blue Origin team, but just half this (almost $240 million) to Dynetics for its ALPACA proposal.  And to SpaceX the grant was just below $140 million.  One cannot argue that NASA was unfairly favoring SpaceX in its grants for the further development of the proposals.

Finally, the price SpaceX bid for the contract – at $2.94 billion – was less than half the $6.00 billion price Blue Origin offered, and less than one-third the price of $9.08 billion Dynetics said it would need.  The price includes the development of the vehicle, a test flight where it would go through the full mission sequence (including landing on and then returning from the lunar surface) but without a crew, and then the Artemis III mission itself with a crew of two.

Based on all this, it should not be difficult to see why NASA chose the SpaceX proposal.  Basic feasibility is of course key, and NASA certainly paid close attention to this.  It found, for example, that by its calculations, the Dynetics ALPACA would not be able to land on the Moon with any payload at all.

But after its detailed review of the SpaceX plans during the year it was funding the more concrete development of those plans, and with full access to all the SpaceX technical teams and the work they had done, NASA engineers concluded the SpaceX proposal was feasible.  As noted before, this in itself was a tremendous vote of confidence in the still-to-fly Starship.  And NASA also concluded that SpaceX would be able to deliver on these plans quite soon.  While I personally have strong doubts that this will be possible by 2024 (or even 2025), this time frame is of interest as it implies that NASA engineers believe the basic Starship system will be flying successfully very soon, i.e. by sometime in 2022.  It implies that they have concluded that the current Starship design is basically doable, and that a major redesign will not be necessary for it to be successful.

Despite the clear superiority of the SpaceX proposal over those of Blue Origin and Dynetics, the latter companies did not see it that way.  Soon after NASA’s decision was announced in April 2021, both Blue Origin and Dynetics appealed to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), arguing that NASA had not properly followed government procurement procedures.  Such appeals are not uncommon, and sometimes lead to reversals.  But the GAO concluded, in a report issued on July 30, that NASA had followed the proper procedures and was justified in making the award to SpaceX.

While Dynetics accepted this and moved on, Blue Origin decided then to file a court case protesting NASA’s decision.  This was frustrating to many, as NASA could not grant the award to SpaceX nor work with SpaceX on the contract while an appeal was underway.  Both sides (NASA and Blue Origin) agreed, however, to expedited court procedures where the judge would make a decision (without a jury) and would do so by early November.  The judge’s decision was then announced on November 4, rejecting Blue Origin’s claims.  The full decision was released on November 18, after Blue Origin had been given the chance to make redactions of commercially confidential information in that judicial opinion.

4)  The Possibilities with Lunar Starship

The mission profiles discussed above follow what NASA has set out for its Artemis plans to return to the Moon.  That is, NASA set how the HLS chosen would be used, and the missions are based on use of an Orion to take the astronauts to the high NRHO lunar orbit and an SLS to launch them there (along with, possibly, use of the Lunar Gateway in the NRHO orbit to serve as a staging area).  The Lunar Starship would then take the crew from the lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon and back.  The Starship would have been launched into Earth orbit, refueled there, then flown to the NRHO orbit, and following the delivery of the crew back at the NRHO would be flown back to Earth orbit for refueling after which it could be used again for the next lunar mission.

But if a Lunar Starship can do all this, there is the obvious question of why one needs the Orion, the SLS, and the Lunar Gateway, at all.  The Lunar Starship will have all the life support systems, seats, and other equipment required to carry the astronauts to a lunar landing and then to support them there for extended periods (one week on the first mission, a month on the second, and more later).  It will also have lots of space and an ability to carry a cargo load far in excess (more than 100 times as large) of what NASA set in its minimum requirements.  Forcing the four astronauts to squeeze into the Orion capsule (with a habitable volume of just 9 cubic meters) for the multi-day flight to lunar orbit, while the Lunar Starship (with a habitable volume of 1,000 cubic meters) would fly there empty, seems absurd.  It would be similar to forcing a group of four to squeeze into a Volkswagon Beetle for a drive across the US, while a luxury bus drove the same route, but empty, only to be used for a final short segment at the end of the journey.

I fully acknowledge that there will be technical issues to work through.  Fuel loads would have to be calculated and would need to suffice.  But the flexibility in the Starship system, where additional in-orbit refuelings could be provided if there is a need, combined with a scaling back, if need be, of the payload to be lifted (a 100-ton capacity means there is a lot of room for adjustment), means that if a Lunar Starship in the NASA HLS role is feasible, then it should certainly be for this expanded role as well.

The mission plan would then be that once there is a fully fueled Lunar Starship in Earth orbit (with whatever number of refueling flights to the Fuel Depot Starship that might require, with the Lunar Starship then fueled from what has been stored in the Fuel Depot Starship), the NASA crew of four (or even a substantially higher number, as there would be plenty of room) would be flown to transfer to the vehicle while it is still in Earth orbit.  They could be flown there on a regular Orbital Starship flight or even on one or more flights of a Falcon 9 with the now well-tested Crew Dragon capsule.  They would then be flown on the Lunar Starship directly to the lunar surface, or possibly first to a lunar orbit and then to the surface.

Furthermore, given its vast size the Lunar Starship could in effect be an instant base on the Moon.  There would be no need to bring to the Moon via a series of separate flights all the components that would otherwise be needed to build such a base.  NASA’s long-term Artemis plans had envisaged this following the first two Artemis landing missions (at least in the plans set before Lunar Starship was chosen).  A permanent, habitable, structure (“Artemis Base Camp”) would have been built on the lunar surface to house the crews, with this slowly expanded in size as additions are brought on subsequent missions.  With the available space in the Lunar Starship, there would be no need.  And the Lunar Starship would also have the space needed, as well as the cargo capacity, for the lunar rovers that NASA has planned.

The Lunar Starship as a lunar base would also have the rather unique capability of being packed up, lifting off, and then flown to a new location, if there is any desire to do this.  There might be value in exploring various sites around the Moon – in a search for frozen waters supplies, for example.  One would just have to ensure that adequate reserves of fuel were brought along.  And if, as some believe likely, significant amounts of frozen carbon dioxide along with frozen water are found on the Moon (most likely near the South Pole, which is why this has been chosen for the early missions and the planned Artemis Base Camp), then it would be possible to produce the liquid methane fuel the Starship uses along with the liquid oxygen, and refuel the Lunar Starship while it is there.

If there is a need for additional cargo, one could also design a version of the Lunar Starship to carry cargo only.  It would fly there on its own (which is now a standard technology – indeed under the NASA HLS contract the Lunar Starship would be required to complete an entire unmanned flight as it would under Artemix III, including landing on the Moon, as a test of the entire system before any crew is put aboard).  If it was not then to be returned to the Earth and thus not need the fuel to do so, but rather remain on the surface as a permanent addition to a growing lunar base, such a cargo flight could bring a load of as much as 200 tons.  This is huge.  The weight (mass really) of the entire International Space Station is, after all the additions over the years, now 420 tons.

And the possibilities the Starship system would open up are not just limited to the Moon.  Very recently, a group of prominent planetary scientists issued a White Paper arguing that with the availability of Starship, the traditional approach taken to planetary exploration missions should be radically re-thought.  With the capacity of the Starship, along with its low cost, planetary missions could become not simply far more frequent but also simplified in design.  Rather than spend a good deal of money and a good deal of time in refining the spacecraft to reduce its weight by a few ounces or its dimensions to fit into the limited capacity of the existing rockets that are used, one could simply use off-the-shelf equipment when Starship is used to send it on its way.  Finally, there is of course the missions to Mars for which the Starship system has been designed.  But all this goes beyond what I intended to cover in this already long post.

Finally, flying the lunar missions on Starship rather than with the Orion, SLS, and associated systems would be far cheaper.  As an extremely rough calculation:  Assume that each Starship launch will cost $20 million (ten times the $2 million Elon Musk has said it will ultimately cost) and that 10 Starship launches would be required for each mission (for refueling in orbit – note that the Lunar Starship and the Fuel Depot Starship would remain in space following their initial launch and would be reused), for a total cost of $200 million for the launches.  For simplicity, assume all the other costs of the launches and then for carrying out the mission would be similar and hence the total cost would be $400 million to carry out the mission.  While crude, this estimate almost certainly errs on the high side.  The actual cost is likely to be lower, but take $400 million for the purposes here.

In contrast, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of NASA in a recent (November 15, 2021) report assessing NASA’s Management of the Artemis Missions estimated that the cost of a single SLS launch with an Orion capsule for an Artemis mission would come to $4.1 billion.  The SLS itself (none of which is reusable – all is thrown away in each launch) would cost $2.2 billion.  This is similar to, but 10% more than, the estimated $2.0 billion cost per launch for the SLS made by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and released in a letter to Congress in 2019.

The NASA OIG estimated that the cost of an Orion crew vehicle, including the cost of the Service Module being built by the European Space Agency, would total $1.3 billion, of which $300 million would be for the Service Module.  In my earlier blog post, I used the contracted amount NASA would pay for the third through the fifth Orion vehicles ($900 million each), but the earlier ones would be higher and the $1.0 billion estimate of the OIG is consistent.  Interestingly, I had thought in my earlier blog post that the European Space Agency would be covering the cost of the $300 million Service Module they are making for the Orion, but the OIG report clarifies that this will not really be the case.  While the Europeans will be paying the contractor that will build the module, NASA will then not charge the Europeans $300 million (per Orion) for costs incurred on behalf of the Europeans at the International Space Station.  That is, this is a barter agreement, so NASA is in fact paying that $300 million cost, but indirectly.  By including it in the ISS budget, where it is not broken out in what is made publicly available, one cannot determine the true cost of the complete Orion vehicle without access to unpublished information.

Finally, the NASA OIG also includes in the cost of an SLS launch the pro-rated share of what it costs to maintain the ground facilities (the launch pad, etc.) needed for an SLS launch.  Since there will be only (at most) one SLS launch per year, this will be the annual budget for maintaining and then using (once) that capacity, which the NASA OIG estimates to be $568 million per launch.

The NASA OIG therefore estimates the total cost per launch of the SLS with Orion will be $4.1 billion.  This would be ten times the generously estimated cost of doing the same via Starship, and for far less capacity.

D.  Politics

Why then keep funding the SLS and Orion?  In the near term, it might make sense.  After all, despite all that has already been done to test and develop Starship, the testing is not yet complete and orbital testing is still to start.  And while NASA technical staff concluded it should ultimately work, it might not.  The key tests will be in the next year, however, and we should know by the end of 2022 (or before) whether Starship will work as planned.  There will certainly be failures at first in the upcoming orbital tests.  As discussed above, this is to be expected in the iterative development process used by SpaceX.  But with iterative improvements, with solutions found to the problems uncovered, it will eventually work.  We will only know that for sure, however, when it does.

Whether Starship will work should be known, however, by no later than the end of 2022.  Provided Starship has demonstrated that it will indeed work, should one then expect to see NASA (with Congress) decide to close down the SLS and Orion funding and switch over to the far more capable and far less costly Starship system?  The answer to that is:  not likely.

First of all, it will be politically embarrassing to admit that it was a mistake.  By the end of FY23, over $54 billion will have been spent ($32 billion for the SLS and $22 billion for the Orion).  The fundamental error came when Congress in 2010 forced the Obama administration to start development immediately of a heavy-lift launcher that became the SLS.  The Obama administration had recommended that NASA should first examine and test certain new technologies (in particular in-orbit refueling ability), with the results then used to determine how best then to design such a launcher.  Congress, and in particular the Senate, insisted (and wrote into law in the 2010 NASA authorizing legislation) that the heavy-lift launcher be designed immediately and furthermore that it make use of the key components of the Space Shuttle (e.g. the engines) in that design.  By mandating this, those in their states and districts who had been employed building such components for the Space Shuttle would remain employed.  But with such requirements written into law, some wags have concluded the SLS should not stand for Space Launch System but rather Senate Launch System.

Republican Senator Shelby of Alabama (home of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville – the center with the primary responsibility for the SLS) was a key advocate, as was Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (home of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston – responsible for manned space flight operations).  Senators from Mississippi (home of the Stennis Space Center, where large rocket engines are tested), Louisiana (home of the Michoud Assembly Facility), and Utah (home of the company that builds the solid rocket boosters that are strapped on to the first stage) were also important advocates.  As was one Democratic Senator – Bill Nelson of Florida (home of the Kennedy Space Center), who was the chair of the subcommittee that drafted the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 when Democrats controlled the Senate.

Former Senator Bill Nelson is now NASA Administrator.  Canceling SLS and Orion would be an embarrassment for him, even if Starship demonstrates its full ability to carry out the nation’s lunar exploration plans – and do so far more effectively and at far lower cost.  As NASA Administrator he has already signaled that NASA intends to continue to use the SLS, and for possibly 30 years or more.  In October, NASA issued a “Request for Information” to the aerospace industry, requesting proposals from firms willing to produce, operate, and maintain the SLS rocket system until the 2050s, with the stated intention that this should reduce the “baseline per flight cost” of an SLS launch by “50% or more”.  The NASA Request for Information did not say, however, what the current baseline cost was from which the 50% would be taken, and refused to respond to reporter queries on what NASA estimates that cost to be.  But as noted above, the White House Office of Management and Budget indicated in a letter to Congress in 2019 that the cost was $2.0 billion per launch.  A more recent estimate from the NASA OIG puts that cost at $2.2 billion.

But NASA itself has consistently refused to reveal what the per launch costs of the SLS will be.  This is despite repeated recommendations over the years by oversight bodies that it should.  For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is formally part of the legislative branch reporting to Congress, recommended NASA provide such an accounting in a 2017 report, when it was already clear that the SLS would be delayed and well over the original planned cost.  More recently, the NASA OIG report of November 15, assessing the management of the Artemis program, recommended that NASA management provide such figures.  But NASA management has continued to refuse.  The NASA OIG report made nine recommendations, and NASA management accepted seven (two partially).  But it rejected the two recommendations on the issue of being transparent on costs.

Congress has, however, not forced NASA to reveal those costs.  While the overall budget of NASA is known year by year, as well as the budgets of major sub-aggregates of certain individual programs as NASA has organized them, one cannot work out from this the overall cost of a major program such as Artemis (with responsibilities for portions of the program spread across much of the agency) nor work out a separation between the cost of developing a new vehicle or system such as the SLS and the cost then of using that system on individual missions.  There is a lack of transparency, although entities such as the GAO or the NASA OIG (as well as journalists and other outsiders) may try to come up with estimates.

Senators and Members of Congress may be quite comfortable, however, with this lack of transparency.  It then does not draw attention to the overall costs (and how high those costs might have grown to) even though they still wish to see (and to publicize) how much is being spent in their particular districts.  And NASA is glad to provide this.  For examples, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Spending more is seen not as a flaw but as a feature.

The SpaceX Starship, if it works, may have a cost of just $2 million per launch.  Even if the cost turns out to be ten times that, it will still be dramatically less costly than an SLS alone, and even more so of an SLS plus Orion system.  Furthermore, and importantly, it would be far more capable.  It would enable far more to be achieved in meeting the stated national objectives of the space exploration program than would be possible with the SLS plus Orion system.  It would be quite revolutionary.  But it will only be used for this purpose if the American political system allows it.

The Economics of Rocket and Spacecraft Development: What Followed From Obama’s Push for Competition

A.  Introduction

The public letter was scathing, and deliberately so.  Made available to the news media in April 2010 just as President Obama was preparing to deliver a major speech on his administration’s strategy to put the US space program back on track, the letter bluntly asserted that the new approach would be “devastating”.  Signed by former astronauts Neil Armstrong (Commander of Apollo 11, and the first man to walk on the moon), Jim Lovell (Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), and Eugene Cernan (Commander of Apollo 17, and up to now the last man to walk on the moon), the letter said that reliance on commercially contracted entities to carry astronauts to orbit “destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature”.  The three concluded that under such a strategy, “the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity”.

What was the cause of this dramatic concern?  Upon taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration concluded that a thorough review was needed of NASA’s human spaceflight program.  Year’s earlier, following the breakup of the Columbia Space Shuttle as it tried to return from orbit – with the death of all on board – the Bush administration had decided that the Space Shuttle was not only expensive but also fundamentally unsafe to fly.  Due to its cost while still flying the Shuttle, NASA did not have the funds to develop alternatives.  The Bush administration therefore decided to retire the then remaining Space Shuttles by 2010.  The Obama administration later added two more Space Shuttle flights to allow the completion of the International Space Station (ISS), but the final Space Shuttle flight was in 2011.  The Bush administration plan was that the funds saved by ending the Space Shuttle flights would be used to develop what they named the Constellation program.  Under Constellation, two new space boosters would be developed – Ares I to launch astronauts to the ISS in low earth orbit and Ares V to launch astronauts to the moon and possibly beyond.  A new spacecraft, named Orion, to carry astronauts on these missions would also be developed.

To fund Constellation, the Bush administration plan was also to decommission the ISS in 2015, just five years after it would be completed.  Work on the ISS had begun in 1985 – when Reagan was president -, the first flight to start its assembly was in 1998, and assembly was then expected to be completed in 2010 (in the end it was in 2011).  The total cost (as of 2010) had come to $150 billion.  But in order to fund Constellation, the Bush administration plan was to shut down the ISS just five years later, and then de-orbit it for safety reasons to burn it up in the atmosphere.

The Obama administration convened a high-level panel to review these plans.  Chaired by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin (and commonly referred to as the Augustine Commission), the committee issued its report in October 2009.  They concluded that the Constellation program was simply not viable.  Their opening line in the Executive Summary read “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory.”  Mission plans (including the time frames) were simply unachievable given the available and foreseeable budgets.  There would instead be billions of dollars spent but with the intended goals not achieved for decades, if ever.  A particularly glaring example of the internal inconsistencies and indeed absurdities was that the Aries I rocket, being developed to ferry crew to the ISS, would not see its first flight before 2016 at the earliest.  Yet the ISS would have been decommissioned and de-orbited by then.

The Augustine Commission recommended instead to shift to contracting with private entities to ferry astronauts to orbit.  Such a program for the ferrying of cargo supplies to the ISS had begun during the Bush administration.  By 2009 this program was already well underway, and the first such flight, by SpaceX using its Falcon 9 rocket, was successfully completed in May 2012.  The commission also recommended that work be done to develop the technologies that could be used to determine how a new heavy-lift launch vehicle should best be designed.  For example, would it be possible to refuel vehicles in orbit?  If so, the overall size of the booster could be quite different, as there would no longer be a need to lift both the spacecraft and the fuel to send it on to the Moon or to Mars or to wherever, all on one launch.  And the commission then laid out a series of options for exploration that could be done with a new heavy-lift rocket (whether a new version of the Ares V or something else), including to the Moon, to Mars, to asteroids, and other possibilities.  It also recommended that the life of the ISS be extended at least to 2020.

And it was not just the Augustine Commission expressing these concerns.  Earlier, in a report issued in August 2009, the GAO stated that “NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case … needed to justify moving the Constellation program forward into the implementation stage”.  It also noted that NASA itself, in an internal review in December 2008 (i.e. before Obama was inaugurated) had “determined that the current Constellation program was high risk and unachievable within the current budget and schedule”.  The GAO also noted that Ares I was facing important technical challenges as well (including from excessive vibration and from its long narrow design, where there was concern this might cause it to drift into the launch tower when taking off).  While it might well be possible to resolve these and other such technical challenges given sufficient extra time and sufficient extra money, it would require that extra time and extra money.

President Obama’s strategy, as he laid out in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 (but which was already reflected in his FY2011 budget proposals that had been released in February), was built on the recommendations of the Augustine Commission.  The proposal that received the most attention was that to end the Ares I program and to contract instead with competing commercial providers to ferry crews to the ISS.  And rather than continue on the Ares V launch vehicle (on which only $95 million had been spent by that point, in contrast to $4.6 billion on Ares I), the proposal was first to spend significant funds (more than $3 billion over five years) to develop and test relevant new technologies (such as in-orbit refueling) to confirm feasibility before designing a new heavy-lift launch vehicle.  That design would then be finalized no later than 2015.  Third, work would continue on the Orion spacecraft, but with a focus on its role to carry astronauts beyond Earth orbit, as well as to serve as a rescue vehicle should one be needed in an emergency for the ISS.  Fourth, the life of the ISS itself would be extended to at least 2020 from the Bush plan to close and destroy it in 2015.  And fifth, Obama proposed that the overall NASA budget be increased by $6 billion over five years over what had earlier been set.

While the proposal was well received by some, there were also those who were vociferously opposed – Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan, for example, in the letter quoted at the top of this post.  But perhaps the strongest, and most relevant, opposition came from certain members of congress.  Congress would need to approve the new strategy and then back it with funding.  Yet several key members of Congress, with positions on the committees that would need to approve the new plans and budgets, were strongly opposed.  Indeed, this opposition was already being articulated in late 2009 and early 2010 as the direction the Obama administration was taking (following the issuance of the Augustine Commission report) was becoming clear.

Perhaps most prominent in opposition was Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who repeatedly spoke disparagingly of the commercial competitors (meaning SpaceX primarily) who would be contracted to ferry astronauts to the ISS.  In a January 29, 2010, statement, for example (released just before the FY2011 budget proposals of the Obama administration were to be issued), Shelby asserted “China, India, and Russia will be putting humans in space while we wait on commercial hobbyists to actually back up their grand promises”.  Shelby called it “a welfare program for amateur rocket companies with little or nothing to show for the taxpayer dollars they have already squandered”.

Shelby was not alone.  Other senators and congressmen were also critical.  Most, although not all, were Republicans, and one might question why those who on other occasions would articulate a strong free-market position, would on this issue argue for what was in essence a socialist approach.  The answer is that under the traditional NASA process, much of the taxpayer funds that would be spent (many billions of dollars) would be spent on federal facilities and on contractors in their states or congressional districts.  The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was the lead NASA facility for the development of the Ares I and Ares V rockets, and Senator Shelby of Alabama was proud of the NASA money he had directed to be spent there.  Senators and congressmen from other states with the main NASA centers involved or with the major contractors (Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Utah) were also highly critical of the Obama initiative to introduce private competition.

The outcome, as reflected in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (passed in October 2010) and then in the FY2011 budget passed in December, was a compromise.  The administration was directed basically to do both.  The legislation required that a new heavy-lift rocket be designed immediately, with the key elements similar to and taken from the Ares V design (and hence employ the same contractors as for the Ares V).  It was eventually named the Space Launch System (or SLS – or as wags sometimes called it “the Senate Launch System” since the key design specifics were spelled out and mandated in the legislation drafted in the Senate).  It also directed that the cost should be no more than $11.5 billion and that it would be in operation no later than the end of 2016.  (As we will discuss below, the SLS has yet to fly and is unlikely to before 2022 at the earliest, and over $32 billion will have been spent on it before it is operational.)

The compromise also allowed the administration to proceed with the development of commercial contracts to ferry astronauts to the ISS, but with just $307 million allocated in FY2011 rather than the $500 million requested.  For FY2011 to FY 2015, only $2,725 million of funding was eventually approved by congress, or well less than half of the $5,800 million originally requested by the Obama administration in 2010 for the program.  As a result, the commercial crew program, as it was called, was delayed by several years.  The first substantial contracts (aside from smaller amounts awarded earlier to various contractors to develop some of the technologies that would be used) were signed only in August 2012.  At that time, $440 million was awarded to SpaceX, $460 million to Boeing, and $212.5 million to Sierra Nevada Corporation, to develop the specifics of their competing proposals to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

The primary contracts were then awarded to SpaceX and to Boeing in September 2014.  NASA agreed to pay SpaceX a fixed total of $2,600 million, and Boeing what was supposed to be a fixed total of $4,200 million (but with an additional $287.2 million added later, when Boeing said they needed more money).  Each of these contracts would cover the full costs of developing a new spacecraft (Crew Dragon for SpaceX and Starliner for Boeing) and then of flying them on the rockets of their choice (Falcon 9 for SpaceX and the Atlas V for Boeing) to the ISS for six operational missions (with an expected crew of four on each, although the capsules could hold up to seven).  The contracts would cover not only the cost of the rockets used, but also the costs of an unmanned test flight to the ISS and then a manned test flight to the ISS with a crew of two or more.  If successful, the six operational missions would then follow.

We now know what has transpired in terms of missions launched.  While the SLS is still to fly on even a first test mission (the current schedule is for no earlier than November 2021, but many expect it will be later), SpaceX successfully carried out an unmanned test of its spacecraft (Crew Dragon) in a launch and docking with the ISS in March 2019, a successful test launch with a crew of two to the ISS in May 2020, an operational launch with a NASA crew of four to the ISS in November 2020, and a second operational launch with a NASA crew of four to the ISS in April 2021 (where I have included under “NASA” crews from space agencies of other nations working with NASA).  The April 2021 mission also reused both a Crew Dragon capsule from an earlier mission (the one used on the two-man test flight in May 2020) and a previously used first stage booster for the Falcon 9 rocket.  Previously, out of caution, NASA would only allow a new Falcon 9 booster to be used on these manned flights – not one that had been flown before.  They have now determined that the reused Falcon 9 boosters are just as safe.

As I write this, the plans are for a third operational flight of the Crew Dragon, again carrying four NASA astronauts to the ISS, in late October or November 2021.  And as I am writing this, SpaceX has just launched (on September 15) a private, all-civilian, crew of four for a three-day flight in earth orbit.  They are scheduled to return on September 18.  And there may be a second such completely commercial flight later in 2021.

Boeing, in contrast, has not yet been successful.  While Boeing was seen as the safe, traditional, contractor (in contrast to the “amateur hobbyists” of SpaceX), and received substantially higher funding than SpaceX did for the same number of missions, its first, unmanned, test launch in December 2019, failed.  The upper stage of the rocket burned for too long due to a software issue, and the spacecraft ended up in the wrong orbit.  While they were still able to bring the spacecraft back to earth, later investigations found that there were a number of additional, possibly catastrophic, software problems.  After a full investigation, NASA called for 61 corrective actions, a number of them serious, to be taken before the spacecraft is flown again.

As I write this, there have been further delays with the Boeing Starliner.  After several earlier delays, a re-run of the unmanned test mission of the capsule was scheduled to fly on July 30, 2021.  However, on July 29, a newly arrived Russian module attached to the ISS began to fire its thrusters due to a software error, causing the ISS to start to spin.  While it was soon brought under control, the decision was made to postpone the flight test of the Boeing Starliner by a few days, to August 3, to allow time for checks to the ISS to make sure there was no serious damage from the Russian module mishap.  But then, in the countdown on August 3 problems were discovered in the Starliner’s control thrusters.  Many of the valves were stuck.  On August 13, the decision was made to take down the capsule from the booster rocket, return it to a nearby facility, confirm the cause of the problem (it appears that Teflon seals failed), and fix it.  There will now be a delay of at least two months, and possibly into 2022.

Thus the unmanned test flight of the Boeing Starliner will only be flown at least two and a half years (and possibly three years, or more) after the successful unmanned test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in March 2019.  And as noted before, Boeing was supposed to be the safe choice of a traditional defense and space contractor, in contrast to the hobbyists at SpaceX.

While flight success is, in the end, the most important and easy to observe metric, also important is how much these alternative approaches cost.  That will be the focus of this post.  The cost differences are huge.  While not always easy to measure (this will be discussed below), the differences in the costs between the traditional NASA contracting and the more commercial contracts that paid for the services delivered are so large that any uncertainty in the cost figures is swamped by the magnitude of the estimated differences.

We will first look at the costs of developing and flying the principal heavy-lift rockets now operational in the US.  While they have different capabilities, which I fully acknowledge, the differences in the costs cannot be attributed just to that.  We will then look at the costs of developing and flying the three capsule spacecraft we now have (or will soon have) in the US:  the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the Boeing Starliner (more properly, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner), and the Orion being built under contract to NASA by Lockheed Martin.  The differences in capabilities here are also significant, but one cannot attribute the huge cost differences just to that.

This blog post is relatively long, with a good deal of discussion on the underlying basis of the estimates for the various figures as well as on the capabilities (and comparability) of the various rockets and spacecraft reviewed.  For those not terribly interested in such aspects of the US space program, the basic message of the post can be seen simply by focussing on the charts.  They are easy to find.  And the message is that NASA contracting on the commercial basis that the Obama administration proposed for the carrying of crew to the ISS (and which the Bush administration had previously initiated for the carrying of cargo to the ISS) has been a tremendous success.  SpaceX is now routinely delivering both cargo and crews to orbit, and at a cost that is a small fraction of what is found with the traditional NASA approach.  One sees this in both the development and operational costs, and the differences are so large that one cannot attribute this simply to differing missions and capabilities.

B.  The Rockets Reviewed and Their History

The chart at the top of this post shows the cost per kilogram to launch a payload to low earth orbit by the primary heavy-lift launch vehicles currently being used (or soon to be used) in the US.  This is only for the cost of an additional rocket launch – what economists call the marginal cost.  The cost to develop the rocket itself is not included here, as that cost is fixed and largely the same whether there is only one launch of the vehicle or many.  We will look at those development costs separately in the discussion below.

To get to the cost per kilogram, one must start with what each rocket is capable of carrying to low earth orbit and then couple this with the (marginal) cost of an additional launch.  We will review all that below.  But first a note on the data underlying these figures.

For a number of reasons, comparable data on the costs and even the maximum lift capacities of these various rockets are not readily available.  One has to use a wide range of sources.  Among the primary ones I used (for both the payload capacities and the costs of the rockets discussed in this and in the following sections, as well as for the costs for the spacecraft discussed further below), one may look here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

There will, however, be issues with the precision of any such estimates, in particular for the costs.  For a number of reasons, such comparisons (again especially of the costs) are difficult to make.  Several of those reasons are discussed in an annex at the end of this post.  Due to the difficulties in making such comparisons, differences in costs per kilogram of payload lifted to orbit of 10 or 20% certainly, but also even of 40 or 50%, should not be viewed as necessarily significant.  However, we will see that the differences in costs between developing and launching rockets and spacecraft with the traditional NASA approach and the approach based on competition that Obama introduced to manned space flight are far greater than this.  Indeed, we will see that the costs are several times higher, and often even an order of magnitude or more higher.  Differences of such magnitude are certainly significant.

To start, rockets differ in capabilities, and one must adjust for that.  The most important measure is lifting capacity – how many kilograms of payload can be carried into orbit:

The rockets to be examined here are limited to US vehicles (hence none of those from China, Russia, Europe, and elsewhere) and to heavier boosters sizeable enough to carry manned vehicles.  Ares I is included even though it flew on only one test flight (and only a partial one at that) before its development was ended, in order to show how its capacity would have compared to other launchers.  It would be similar in size to the alternatives.  But its (incomplete) development costs were already more than an order of magnitude higher than that of the Falcon 9, as we will discuss below.

The other boosters to be examined here are the Falcon 9 (of which there are two versions – with the first stage booster either expended or recovered), the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy (both made by the United Launch Alliance – a 50/50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that, when formed in 2006, had a monopoly on heavy launch vehicles in the US), the Space Launch System (still to be tested in its first launch), and the Falcon Heavy (of which there are also two versions, with the first stage boosters either expendable or recoverable).

As noted, the Falcon 9 can be flown in two versions – with the first stage booster either expended (allowed to fall into the ocean) or recovered.  Since the first stage of a rocket will normally be the most expensive part of a rocket, Elon Musk sought to develop a booster where the first stage could be recovered.  And he did.  (He also, for a time, sought to recover similarly the second stage of the Falcon 9, but ultimately abandoned this.  The cost of a second stage is less, so there is less benefit in recovering it, while the difficulty, and hence the cost, is greater.  He eventually concluded it was not worth it.)

The Falcon 9 first stage is recovered by flying it back either to the launch site or to a floating platform in the ocean, where it slows down and lands by re-igniting its engines.  The videos can be spectacular.  But this requires that a portion of the fuel be saved for the landing, and hence the maximum payload that can be carried is less.  However, the cost savings (discussed below) are such that the cost per kilogram to orbit will be lower.

I have not been able to find, however, a precise figure for what the payload penalty will be when the first stage is recovered.  SpaceX may be keeping this confidential.  SpaceX does provide, at its corporate website, a figure for the maximum payload on a Falcon 9.  It is 22,800 kilograms, but this has been interpreted to be what the payload will be when the first stage uses 100% of its fuel to launch the payload into orbit, with that booster then allowed to fall into the ocean.  But a figure for what the maximum payload can be when the booster is recovered is not provided.  The Wikipedia entry for the Falcon 9, for example, only provides a figure for what was a heavy load on an actual launch (with the booster recovered).  This does not mean this would be the maximum possible load.

For the calculations here, I therefore used the payload capacity figures for the Falcon Heavy, taking the ratio between the payload that can be carried in the fully recoverable version to the payload in the expended version.  Elon Musk has indicated that this payload penalty on the Falcon Heavy is about 10%.  Applying this ratio to the Falcon 9 full capacity figure of 22,800 kg, and rounding down to 20,000 kg, should be a reasonable estimate of the maximum payload on the recoverable version of the rocket, and close enough for the purposes here.  The ratios for the Falcon Heavy and the Falcon 9 should be similar, as the first stage of the Falcon Heavy is essentially three first stages of the Falcon 9 strapped together (with the second stage the same in each), and the fuel that would be needed to be saved to allow for the recoveries and landings of the first stage boosters should be similar.

With this configuration where the Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 first stage boosters strapped together, SpaceX was able to build an extremely large booster.  It is currently by far the largest operational such vehicle in the US stable, and indeed is currently the largest in the world.  The SLS will be larger if it becomes operational, but it is not at that point yet.  By building on the Falcon 9, the development costs of the Falcon Heavy were relatively modest, although Elon Musk has noted it turned out to be more complicated than they had at first thought it would be.  And with the three boosters that make up the first stage of Falcon Heavy similarly recoverable, one has even more spectacular videos of pairs of the boosters landing together back at the launch site (the third is recovered on a barge in mid-ocean). There is some penalty in the maximum payload weight that can be carried (about 10% as noted above), but the cost savings far exceed this (discussed below), leading to a cost per kilogram of payload that is almost a third less than when these first-stage boosters are not recovered.

The Atlas V and the Delta IV Heavy are both produced by the United Launch Alliance, the 50/50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed.  Its creation in 2006 by bringing together into one company the sole two providers in the US at that time of large launch vehicles was questioned by many.  The first launch of the Falcon 9 came only later, in 2010.  But the primary customer was and is the US Department of Defense, and they approved it (and may indeed have encouraged it) as their primary concern was to preserve an assured ability to fly their payloads into orbit rather than the cost of doing so.

The Atlas series of vehicles were brought to the ULA from Lockheed (via a string of corporate mergers – the Atlas rocket was first developed by General Dynamics), and have a long history stretching back to the initial Mercury orbital launches (of Glenn in 1962) and indeed even before that.  The models have of course changed completely over the years, and importantly since the year 2000 with the first launch of the Atlas III model which used Russian-made RD-180 engines.  The RD-180 engines are now being phased out for national security reasons, but the planned follow on rocket (named the Vulcan, or more properly the Vulcan Centaur), has yet to fly.  The Vulcan will use engines made by Blue Origin, and there have been delays in getting those engines delivered for the initial test flights.

There are ten different models of the Atlas V that have flown, and several more were available if a customer was interested.  For the charts here, version #551 of the Atlas V has been used, as it has the heaviest lift capacity of the various versions and has flown at least ten times (as I write this in September 2021).

The Delta rocket also has a long history, with variants dating back to 1960.  it was originally built by Douglas Aircraft, which after a merger became McDonnell-Douglas, which was later acquired by Boeing.  Boeing then brought the Delta to the United Launch Alliance.  There are also several variants of Delta rockets that have been available, but the Delta IV Heavy version will be used in the charts here as it can carry the heaviest payload among them.  Until the first launch of the Falcon Heavy in 2018, the Delta IV Heavy had the greatest lift capacity of any rocket in the US stable.  But as one can see in the chart, the payload capacity of the Falcon Heavy is double that of the Delta IV Heavy.

The Space Launch System (SLS) dates to 2011, when the basic design was announced by NASA.  Key design requirements had been set, however, in congressional legislation drafted originally in the Senate and incorporated into the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that was signed into law in October 2010.  As was discussed above, NASA was instructed by Congress to develop the SLS and in doing so that it should use the rocket technology that had been developed for the Space Shuttle and which would have been used for the Ares V.  The Space Shuttle technology dates from the 1970s with a first flight of the Shuttle in 1981.  Its main rocket engines (three at the rear of the Orbiter) were the RS-25, which burns liquid hydrogen and oxygen.  The Shuttle also had two solid rocket boosters attached, each of four segments.

The SLS design, following the mandates of Congress, uses four RS-25 engines in its core first stage.   Two solid rocket boosters, of the same type also as used for the Shuttle, are attached on the sides (although with five segments each rather than the four for the Shuttle).  The second stage of the SLS will use the RL-10 liquid-fueled engine – a design that dates to the 1950s and first flew in 1959.  Indeed, for the initial (Block 1) model of the SLS, the second stage is in essence the second stage that has been used for some time on the Delta III and Delta IV boosters.

The SLS design shares many elements with the Ares V booster that would have been part of the Constellation program begun by the Bush administration.  The first stage booster of the Ares V would have had five RS-25 rockets in its core (versus four of the RS-25s in the SLS) and also with two of the strap-on solid rocket boosters from the Shuttle (but with 5.5 segments each instead of the five on the SLS).  While work on the Ares V never progressed far beyond its design, with NASA spending only $95 million on it before it was canceled, the SLS is very much based on the design of the Ares V and with similar ties to the Space Shuttle.

The engine technologies have of course evolved substantially over time, with upgrades and refinements as more was learned.  And using existing designs should certainly have saved both time and money.  But neither happened.  Congress directed that the SLS should be operational by 2016, and early NASA plans were for it to be flying by 2017, but as of this writing it has yet to have had even a test flight.  As noted previously, the first test launch is currently scheduled for November 2021, but many expect this will be further delayed.  And as we will see below, despite the use of previously developed technology for most of the key components (in particular the rocket engines), the costs have been quite literally astronomical.

Finally, the Ares I booster is included here for comparison purposes.  Its first stage would have been the same solid rocket booster used for the Space Shuttle (but just one booster rather than two, and of five segments), while the second stage would have used a version of the J-2 liquid-fueled engine.  This engine was originally developed in the early 1960s for use in the upper stages of the Saturn 1B and Saturn V rockets then being developed for the Apollo program.  There have been numerous upgrades since, of course, and some would say the J-2 version developed for the Ares I (named the J-2X) was close to a new design.

There was only one, partial, test flight of the Ares I before the program was canceled.  That flight, in October 2009, was of the first stage only (the solid rocket booster derived from the Space Shuttle), with just dummies of the second stage and payload to simulate the flight dynamics of that profile.  It reached a height (as planned) of less than 30 miles.  While deemed a “success” by NASA, the launch caused substantial unanticipated damage to the launch pad, plus the parachutes designed to return the first stage partially failed.

As will be discussed below, while the Ares I never became operational, the amount spent on its (partial) development had already far exceeded that of comparable rockets.  It was also facing substantial technical issues that could be catastrophic unless solved (including from excessive vibration and a concern that with its tall, thin, design it might drift into the launch tower on lift-off).  Finally, as noted before, the rocket’s mission would be to ferry astronauts to the ISS, yet under the Bush administration’s plan to abandon and de-orbit the ISS by 2015 (in order to free up NASA funds for the Constellation program), the first operational flight (as forecast in 2009) would not be until 2016.  Nonetheless, Obama’s decision to cancel the program was severely criticized.

C.  The Cost of Developing the Rockets

In considering the costs of any vehicle, including rockets and spacecraft, one should distinguish between the cost of developing the technology and the cost of using it.  Development costs are upfront and fixed, regardless of whether one then uses the rocket for one launch or many.  Operational costs per launch are then a measure of what it would cost for an additional launch – what economists call the marginal cost.

While the concepts are clear, the distinction can be difficult to estimate.  The costs may often be mixed, and one must then try to separate out what the costs of just the launches were from the cost of developing the system.  But reasonable estimates are in general possible.

To start with development costs:

First, in the case of Ares I all the costs incurred were development costs as there were no operational launches.  Figures on this are provided in the NASA budget documents for each fiscal year.  A total of $4.6 billion was spent on the program between fiscal years 2005 (when the program was launched) and 2010 (when it was canceled).

But at that point the program was far from operational.  The first operational flight was not going to be before 2016 at the earliest, and very likely later.  To make the comparison similar to the costs of other rocket programs (which have reached operational status), one should add an estimate of what the additional costs would have been to reach that same point.  But there is only a partial estimate of what those additional development costs would have been.  As is standard, the FY2010 NASA budget had five-year cost forecasts (i.e. for the next four years following the request for the upcoming fiscal year) for each of the budget line items, and at that point the forecast was that the Ares I program would cost an additional $8.1 billion in fiscal years 2011 through 2014.  Furthermore, this expected expense of over $2 billion per year would not be declining over time but in fact rising a bit, and would likely continue for several years more at a similar rate or higher until Ares I was operational.

Even leaving out what the additional development costs would have been beyond FY2014 (probably an additional $2 billion per year for several more years), the expected costs through FY2014 would have already been huge, at $12.7 billion.  This is incredibly high for what should have been a relatively simple rocket (based on components that were already well used), although we will see similarly high costs in the development of the SLS.  Why they are so high is difficult to understand, particularly as the Ares I is a booster whose first stage is simply one of the solid rocket boosters from the Shuttle program (and indeed initially physically taken from the excess stock of such boosters left over at the end of the Shuttle program, although modified with an extra segment added in the middle to bring it to five segments from four).  And the second stage was to be built around an upgraded model of the old J-2 engine.

In sharp contrast to these costs for the Ares I, the development costs of the similarly sized Falcon 9 rocket as well as the far larger Falcon Heavy are tiny, at just $300 million and $500 million respectively.  Are those figures plausible?  Since SpaceX is not a publicly listed company, its financial statements are not published.  However, it does have funders (both banks and others providing loans, as well as those taking a private equity position) so financial information is made available to them.  While confidential, it often leaks out.  Plus there are public statements that Elon Musk and others have made.  And importantly, as a start-up founded in 2002, it was a small company without access to much in the way of funding in the period.  They could not have spent billions.

One should acknowledge, however, as Elon Musk repeatedly has, that NASA provided financial assistance at a critical point.  SpaceX, Tesla, and Elon Musk personally, were all running low on cash in 2006, were burning through it quickly, and would soon be out of funds.  Then, in late 2006, NASA awarded SpaceX a $278 million contract under its new COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, to be disbursed as identified milestones were reached.  SpaceX was among more than 20 competitors for funds under this program, with SpaceX and one other (Orbital Sciences, with its own launch vehicle and spacecraft) winning NASA support.  The funding to SpaceX was later raised to $396 million (with additional milestones added) and was used to support the development of the Falcon 9 rocket, of the original version of the Dragon capsule to ferry cargo to the ISS, and the cost then to fly three demonstration flights (later collapsed to two) showing that the systems worked.  The second (and final) demonstration mission was a fully successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon capsule with cargo for the ISS, which successfully docked with the ISS and later returned to earth.  Following this, NASA has contracted with SpaceX for a series of cargo resupply missions to the ISS under follow-on contracts (under CRS, for Commercial Resupply Services) where it is paid for each successful mission.  As of this writing, SpaceX is now at the 23rd flight under this program.

NASA funds were important.  But they were only partial and not large, at less than $400 million to support the development of the Falcon 9, the Dragon capsule for cargo, and the initial demonstration flights.  They are consistent with a cost of developing the Falcon 9 alone of about $300 million.

The specific figure of $300 million to develop the Falcon 9 comes from a statement Elon Musk made in May 2011 on SpaceX’s history to that point.  He wrote that total SpaceX expenditures up to that point had been “less than $800 million”, with “just over $300 million” for the development of the Falcon 9.  The rest was for the development of the Dragon spacecraft (used to deliver cargo to the ISS) for $300 million, the cost of developing and testing in five flights SpaceX’s initial rocket the Falcon 1 (which had a single Merlin engine newly developed by SpaceX – the Falcon 9 uses nine Merlin engines), the costs of building launch sites for the Falcon rockets at Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, and Kwajalein in the Pacific, as well as the cost of building all the corporate manufacturing facilities for the Falcon rockets and the Dragon.  Musk noted that the financial accounts are confirmed by external auditors, as they would be for any sizeable firm.

Separately, in 2017 a Senior Vice President of SpaceX (Tim Hughes), in testimony to Congress, noted that the development cost of Falcon 9 had been $300 million and $90 million for the earlier Falcon 1 rocket, and that NASA had independently verified these figures (in the report here, as updated).

The $300 million cost estimate looks plausible.  Unlike NASA (as well as firms such as Boeing), as a new start-up SpaceX simply would not and did not have the funding to spend much more.  But even if it were several times this, it would still be far less than what the cost of the similarly sized Ares I had been.

The estimate of $500 million to develop the Falcon Heavy also comes from statements made by Musk.  It is also plausible.  As noted above, the Falcon Heavy is basically a set of three Falcon 9 first-stage boosters strapped together, topped by a second stage (as well as payload fairing) that is the same as that on the Falcon 9.  Musk has noted that it was not as easy to do develop the Falcon Heavy as they had initially expected (there are many complications, including the new aerodynamics of such a design), but even at $500 million the cost is a bargain compared to what NASA has spent to develop boosters.

The Space Launch System (SLS) has yet to fly.  As noted before, this will take place no earlier than November 2021, but many expect there will be further delays.  Furthermore, the plan is for only one test flight to be made.  It is not clear what will happen if this test flight is not successful.

One has in NASA budget documents how much has been spent each year for the SLS thus far, and what is anticipated will be required for the next several years.  A total of $26.3 billion will have been spent through FY2021 (i.e. to September 30, 2021).  But the SLS is not yet operational, and the NASA budgets do not provide a breakdown between the cost of developing the SLS and the cost of launching it.  And there is not a clear distinction between the two.  Indeed, even the initial test flight has been labeled the Artemis 1 mission.  It will not be manned, but it will carry the Orion spacecraft (also being tested) on a month-long flight that will take it to the moon, go into lunar orbit, and then leave lunar orbit to return to earth with a splashdown and recovery of the Orion.

If successful, the second launch of the SLS will not be until September 2023 at the earliest.  While this flight would be manned and would loop around the Moon, some, at least, consider it also a test flight – testing all the systems under the conditions of a crew on board.

In part this is semantics, but treating the period until the end of FY2023 as the SLS still in the development phase, the total NASA is expected to have spent developing the SLS will be $32.4 billion.  While its payload capacity is 50% larger than that of the Falcon Heavy, it would have cost 65 times as much to bring it to the point of being operational.  While there are of course important differences, it is difficult to understand why the development of the SLS will have cost 65 times, and possibly more, than the cost of developing the Falcon Heavy.  It is especially difficult to understand as the rocket engines (the main cost for a booster) of the SLS are models used on the Space Shuttle, the strap-on solid rockets are also from the Space Shuttle, and the RL10 engine used on the second stage is derived from that used on earlier US rockets, dating all the way back to the 1950s.

D.  The Cost of Launching the Rockets

Once developed, there is a cost for each launch.  One wants to know the pure marginal cost of an additional launch, excluding all of the development costs, as those costs are in the past and will be the same regardless of what is now done with the newly developed rocket (economists refer to those past costs as sunk costs).

In practice the costs can be difficult to separate.  For private, commercial, vehicles, there may be some public information on what the firm providing the launch services is charging, but the price being charged for any specific flight is often treated as private and confidential, where the agreed upon price was reached through a negotiations process.  And the price paid will presumably include some margin above the pure marginal costs to help cover (when summed across all the launches that will be done) the original cost of developing the rockets plus some amount for profits.  It is even more difficult to determine for the SLS, as one only has what is published in the NASA budget documents for the amount being spent on the overall SLS program, where that total combines the cost of both developing and then launching the vehicle.  NASA has not provided a break-down, and deliberately so.  But one does have in the budget numbers a year-by-year breakdown, which one can use as the development costs (for the initial version of the SLS) will largely be incurred before the vehicle becomes operational, and the operational costs after.  This will be used below.

Even with such provisoes, reasonable estimates of the costs are so hugely different that the basic message is clear:

SpaceX is most transparent on its costs.  Standard prices are given on its corporate website, of $62 million for a Falcon 9 launch and $90 million for a Falcon Heavy.  The site does not specify whether these are for the expendable or recoverable versions, but based on other information, it appears that the $62 million for the Falcon 9 reflects the cost of an expendable Falcon 9, while the $90 million for the Falcon Heavy is for the recoverable version.  The $62 million for the Falcon 9 is similar to what was charged in the early years for the Falcon 9 before the ability to recover its first stage booster was developed.  And Elon Musk has said that the cost of the fully expendable version of the Falcon Heavy maxes out at $150 million, which implies that the $90 million figure shown on its website is for the version where all three of the first stage boosters are recovered.

The $35 million figure for the cost of the Falcon 9 when its first stage is recovered is then an estimate based on a $62 million cost which is assumed to apply when the first stage cannot be recovered.  In an interview in 2018, Musk said that the cost of the first stage booster is about 60% of the cost of a Falcon 9 launch, with 20% for the second stage, 10% for the payload fairing, and 10% for the operations of the launch itself.  These are clearly rounded numbers, but based on them, 60% of $62 million is $37 million, with the remaining 40% then $25 million.  Assuming, generously, that the cost to refurbish the booster for a new flight, plus some amortization cost (e.g. $3.7 million per flight if it can be reused for 10 flights), would be $10 million, then a cost per flight with recovered first stage boosters would be about $35 million per flight.  This is broadly consistent with a statement made by Christopher Couluris (director of vehicle integration at SpaceX) in 2020 that SpaceX can bring down the cost per flight to “below $30 million per launch”, and that “[The rocket] costs $28 million to launch it, that’s with everything”.  The $35 million figure for the recoverable version of the Falcon 9 might well be on the high side, but as was noted previously, I am deliberately erring on the high side for the cost estimates of SpaceX and on the low side for the NASA vehicles.

Thus a figure of $35 million per launch of a Falcon 9 with the first stage booster recovered is a reasonable (and likely high) figure for what the cost is to SpaceX for such a launch.  The $62 million “list price” on the SpaceX website would then include what would be a generous (in relative terms) profit margin for SpaceX, covering the development costs and more.  According to the SpaceX website, as I write this there have been 125 launches of the Falcon 9 since its first flight in 2010, on 85 of these they have recovered the first stage booster, and on 67 flights they have reflown a recovered booster.  The first successful recovery of a first stage booster was in December 2015.

Competition matters, and following the more transparent prices being charged customers by SpaceX for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy (at least transparent in terms of “list prices”), ULA in December 2016 set up a website called “RocketBuilder.com” where anyone can work out which model of the Atlas V they will need.  There are ten models available, carrying payloads to low earth orbit from a low of 9,800 kg for the Atlas V model 401, up to 18,850 kg for the Atlas V model 551.  As noted before, we are examining the model 551 here as its payload is closest to what the Falcon 9 can carry (22,800 kg in the expendable version and 20,000 kg in the recoverable version).  The RocketBuilder.com website was “launched” with substantial publicity on December 1, 2016, accompanied by an announcement of substantial cuts in their prices for the Atlas V.  The CEO of ULA, Tony Bruno, announced that prices for the Atlas V model 401 would start at $109 million – down from $191 million before.  The price of the Atlas V model 551 would be $179 million when combined with a “full spectrum” of additional ULA services.

When set up, the RocketBuilder.com website included, importantly, what the list price would be of the Atlas V rocket model chosen.  Unfortunately, the RocketBuilder.com website as currently posted does not show this.  The reason might be that the CEO of ULA recently announced, on August 26, that ULA will take no more orders for flights of the Atlas V.  The Atlas V uses the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine (two for each booster), and for national security reasons ULA has been required to cease purchasing these engines.  It must instead develop a new booster with key components all made in the US.  The RD-180 is an excellent engine technically, and is also both highly reliable and relatively inexpensive.  The decision to purchase it, from Russia, was made in the 1990s, and its first flight (on an Atlas III booster) was made in May 2000.  But political conditions have changed, and the most important client for ULA is the US Defense Department.

ULA has now received its final shipment of six RD-180 engines from Russia, and there will be a further 29 Atlas V flights (of all models, not just the model 551) up to the mid-2020s, using up the stock of RD-180 engines ULA has accumulated.  They have now all been booked.  ULA now hopes to launch next year, in 2022, its first test flight of the rocket it has been developing to replace both the Atlas V series as well as the Delta IV Heavy, which it has named the Vulcan Centaur.  It will use the new BE4 engines being developed by Blue Origin.  But that first test flight has been repeatedly delayed.  The first test flight was originally planned for 2019.

However, while the current RocketBuilder.com website of ULA no longer shows the cost to a customer of a launch of an Atlas V, one can find the former prices at an archived version of the RocektBuilder.com website.  While these are prices from a few years ago, they do not appear to have changed (at least as list prices).

The selection is much like that of finding the list price of a new car by going to the manufacturer’s website, selecting the model, adding various options, and then additional services one might want.  For the Atlas V, one can choose various levels of services, from a “Core” option to “Signature”, “Signature pro”, “Full Spectrum”, and “other customization”.  These appear to relate mostly to the division of responsibilities between ULA and the customer on various aspects of integrating the payload with the rocket.  ULA also offers two service packages it calls “Mission Insight” (things such as special access to ULA facilities) and “Rocket Marketing” (pre-launch events, press materials, videos, even “mission apparel”) that provide different levels of services and access.  It is sort of like the higher levels of benefits granted by airlines to their frequent flyers, although here they charge an explicit price for the package.

On the archived website, selecting the payload capacity and orbit that will lead to an Atlas V model 551 being required, the base cost (in 2016) shows as $153 million (as I write this in September 2021).  However, with a “Signature” level of service (which might be the base level required, as the “Core” option is not being allowed for some reason), the cost will be $163 million.  And $173 million for the “Full Spectrum” package.

The website also prominently displays a line for “ULA Added Value” which is then subtracted from that cost.  This does not reflect an actual price reduction by ULA, but rather savings that ULA claims the customer will benefit from if they choose an Atlas V launch by ULA.  The base (default) value of these savings that ULA claims the customer will benefit from is $65 million.  A breakdown shows this is made up of a claimed reduction in insurance costs of $12 million (what it otherwise would have been is not shown – just the “savings”), $23 million because ULA claims they will launch when it is scheduled to be launched and not several months later (which is more than a bit odd – one could produce whatever “savings” one wants by assuming some degree of delay in launch otherwise), and $30 million for what they call “orbit optimization”, which is a claim that the orbit they will place it in will lead to a lifetime for the satellite that is 17 rather than 15 years.

With such “savings” of $65 million (in a base case), ULA claims the actual cost for an Atlas V model 551 launch would not be $163 million, say (in the case considered above), but $65 million less, and thus only $98 million.  While still more than 50% higher, this brings it closer to the Falcon 9 list price of $62 million.  But this all looks like a marketing ploy – indeed rather like a juvenile charade – as that number depends on supposed savings from hypothetical levels.  The amount paid to ULA would still be the $163 million in this example.  And Elon Musk, among others, have questioned the assumptions.

The commonly cited $165 million cost of a launch of an Atlas V is therefore a reasonable estimate.  One should, however, keep in mind that this is both a “list price” subject to negotiation and that depending on the specific options chosen, the price could easily vary by $10 or $20 million around this.  The “savings” figures of ULA should not be taken too seriously, however.  There will be specific factors affecting costs and possible savings with any given payload, for other rockets as well as the Atlas V, and comparisons to some hypothetical will depend on whatever is chosen for that hypothetical.

ULA has provided less public material on the cost of a Delta IV Heavy launch.  This is in part as all of the customers, since the initial test flight in 2004, have been US government entities, and in particular the US Department of Defense.  There have only been 12 launches since that initial test flight, with ten of these classified missions for the Defense Department and two for NASA.  Furthermore, only three more are planned (two in 2022 and one in 2023), with ULA offering the planned Vulcan Centaur rocket (of which there will be a series of models that can carry progressively larger payloads, like for the Atlas V) as a substitute that can carry payloads of a similar size.

Both the Defense Department (especially) and NASA are less than fully transparent on what they have paid for these Delta IV Heavy launches.  The specific costs of the launches can be buried in the broader costs of the overall programs.  But the figures cited for a Delta IV heavy launch have typically been either $400 million (in a statement by ULA in 2015) or $350 million more recently.  It may well have been that, under pressure from the far lower costs of SpaceX, ULA has reduced its price over time.  For the purposes here, and erring on the side of being generous to ULA, I have used for the calculations a price of $350 million for a launch of an additional Delta IV Heavy.

The cost of an additional SLS launch is an estimated $2 billion, but there are conceptual as well as other issues with this figure.  First of all, NASA refused to release to Congress, nor to anyone else for that matter, what the cost of an additional launch would be.  Rather, one only had a single line item in the budget for the combined year-by-year cost of developing and testing the SLS, and also for building and then flying it.  That cost reached $3.1 billion in FY2020, $3.1 billion also in FY2021 and again in FY2022, and with it then forecast to decline slowly but remain at $2.8 billion in FY2026.  The SLS has not yet flown, and its first (uncrewed and the only planned) test flight is now scheduled for November 2021.  The first operational flight (with a crew of four) would not be until 2023 at the earliest, with the second in 2024 at the earliest.  The NASA plan is that there would then be one flight per year starting in 2026 and continuing on into the indefinite future.

But an estimate of the cost of an additional launch of the SLS leaked out, possibly due to an oversight but possibly not, in a letter sent to Congress in October 2019 from OMB. The letter addressed a range of budget issues for all agencies of the government, and set out the position of OMB and hence the administration on matters then being debated.  One was on use of the SLS.  Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who was then chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, had included in the language of the draft budget bill a requirement that NASA use the SLS for the launch of the planned NASA Europa Clipper mission (a satellite to Europa, a moon of Jupiter).  In a paragraph on page 7 of the letter, OMB recommended against this, as there is “an estimated cost of over $2 billion per launch for the SLS once development is complete”.  The letter noted that a commercial launch vehicle could be used instead for a far lower cost.

NASA later admitted (or at least would not deny) that this would be a reasonable estimate of the additional cost of such a launch.  And it is consistent with the budget forecasts that the SLS program would continue to require funding of close to $3 billion each year once flights had begun (at a pace of one per year, or less).  While the $3 billion is still greater than a figure of $2 billion per flight, the development costs for the SLS program will not end when the first SLS booster is operational.  The initial SLS, while a sizeable rocket, would still not have the lifting capacity that would be needed (under current NASA plans) for the planned lunar landings following the very first.

Specifically, the initial model of the SLS (scheduled to be tested this November 2021) is labeled the Block 1, and has a lifting capacity of 95,000 kg to low earth orbit.  The figures for the Block 1 are the ones that are being used in the charts in this post.  However, its capacity would only be sufficient for the first three flights (including the test flight), where the third flight would support the first landing of a crew on the moon under the Artemis program.  Following that, a higher capacity model, labeled the SLS Block 1B, would need to be developed, with a lifting capacity to low earth orbit of 105,000 kg.  To achieve that, a new second stage would be developed using four of the RS-10 rocket engines (versus a second stage with just a single RS-10 engine in the Block 1 version).

Under current NASA plans the Block 1B version of the SLS would then be used only for four flights.  For missions after that an even heavier lift version of the SLS would be needed, with two, more powerful, solid rocket boosters strapped on to the first stage (instead of the solid rocket boosters derived from those used on the Space Shuttle).  These would increase the lifting capacity to 130,000 kg to low earth orbit.  Part of the reason for developing the Block 2, with the new solid rocket side boosters, is that NASA will have used up by then its excess inventory of solid rocket booster segments (from the Space Shuttle program) for the planned launches of the Block 1 and Block 1B versions of the SLS (with one set in reserve).  Using up the existing inventory makes sense.  It should save money – although those savings are difficult to see given the expense of this program.  But that inventory is limited and will suffice only for up to eight flights of the SLS.  Hence the need for a replacement following that, which led to the design for the Block 2.

There will be development costs for the new second stage (with four RS-10 engines rather than one) for the Block 1B and then for the new, more powerful, strap-on solid rocket boosters for the Block 2.  What share of the approximately $3 billion that would be spent each year for the development of these new models of the SLS has not been broken out in the NASA budget – at least not in what has been made public.  But given that only very limited work has been done thus far on the new second stage for the Block 1B and even less on the new solid rocket boosters to be used for the Block 2, continuing development costs of $1 billion per year looks plausible.

At $2 billion per flight, the cost of a SLS launch is huge.  And this does not include any amortization to cover the development costs.  As noted above, those costs are expected to reach over $32 billion by FY2023.  The costs per launch for the other rockets shown on the chart, including the Falcon Heavy, will include in the prices charged some margin to cover the original development costs.  Commercial companies must do this to recover the costs of their investments.  That amount would be gigantic if added for the SLS in order to make its cost figure more comparable to that of the alternatives.

The question is how many flights of the SLS there will be before a more cost-effective alternative starts to be used.  Note that the alternative need not be limited to another giant rocket with a similar lift capacity.  The SLS itself will not be large enough to carry in a single launch all that will be required on the Artemis missions to the moon.  Rather, there would be separate launches on a range of boosters to carry what would be required.  Indeed, a NASA plan developed in 2019 for the launches that will be necessary through to 2028 as part of the Artemis missions to the Moon envisaged 37 separate launches, of which only 8 would be of the SLS (including its initial test launch).  One can break up the cargoes in many different ways.

While speculative, and really only for the point of illustration, one might assume that there will be perhaps 10 flights of the SLS before more cost-effective alternatives are pursued.  If so, then to cover the over $32 billion development cost one would need to add over $3 billion per flight to make the figures comparable to the costs of the other, commercial, launchers.  That is, the cost would then be over $5 billion per flight for the SLS rather than $2 billion.  This would, however, now be more of an average cost per flight than a true marginal cost, and speculative as we do not know how many flights of the SLS there will ultimately be (other than that it will not likely be many, given its huge cost).  Hence I have kept to the $2 billion figure, which is already plenty high.

Even at $2 billion per flight for the SLS, the cost is over 13 times the cost of a Falcon Heavy (in the version where the boosters are all thrown into the ocean rather than recovered).  The lift capacity of the SLS is 50% more, but it is difficult to imagine that that extra capacity could only be achieved at a cost (even ignoring the huge development cost) that is more than 13 times as much.

What has happened on the Europa Clipper mission provides a useful lesson.  Following a review and consultations with Congress, the Biden administration on July 23, 2021, announced that the Europa Clipper would be flown on a Falcon Heavy instead of the SLS.  The total contract amount with SpaceX for all the launch services is just $178 million (which will include the special costs of this unique mission).  There were several reasons to make the change, in addition to the savings from a cost of $178 million rather than $2 billion.  One is simply that by using the Falcon Heavy they will be able to launch in October 2024.  No SLS will be available by that time, nor indeed for several years after.  While a more direct route to Jupiter would have been possible with the heavier lift capacity of the SLS, the Europa Clipper would have had to be kept in storage for several years until a SLS rocket became available.  Separately, NASA discovered there would be a severe vibration issue due to the solid rocket boosters on the SLS, which the delicate spacecraft would have not have been able to handle.  To modify the Europa Clipper to make it able to handle those vibrations would have cost an additional $1 billion.

Finally, it is clear that the politics has changed.  Senator Shelby of Alabama has been the figure most insistent on requiring use of the SLS to launch the Europa Clipper.  With the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (located in Huntsville, Alabama) the lead NASA office responsible for the SLS, a significant share of what is being spent on the SLS is being spent in Alabama.  And as Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Senator Shelby was in a powerful position to determine what the NASA budget would be.  But as a Republican, Senator Shelby lost the chairmanship when the Senate came under Democratic control in January 2021, plus he has announced he will not run for re-election in 2022. His influence now is thus not what it was before, and NASA can now pursue a more rational course on the launch vehicle.

E.  The Cost of Developing and Operating Spacecraft for Crews

NASA has also used its new, more commercial, contracting approach for the development and then use of private spacecraft to carry crew to the ISS.  This was indeed the proposal of President Obama in 2010 that was so harshly criticized, as discussed at the beginning of this post.  We now know how that has worked out:  SpaceX is flying crews to the ISS routinely, while Boeing, a traditional aerospace giant which was supposed to be the safe choice, has had issues.  We also can compare the costs under this program (for both SpaceX and Boeing) to that of developing the Orion spacecraft, where Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor operating under the more traditional NASA contracting approach.

There are, of course, important differences between the Orion and the spacecraft developed by SpaceX (its Crew Dragon, sometimes referred to as the Crew variant of the Dragon 2 as the capsule is a model derived from the original Dragon capsule used for ferrying cargo to the ISS), and by Boeing (which it calls the CST-100 Starliner, or just Starliner for short).  The SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing Starliner will both be used to ferry astronauts to the ISS in low earth orbit, while the Orion is designed to carry astronauts to the Moon and possibly beyond.

But there are important similarities.  They are all capsules, use heat shields for re-entry, and can seat up to six astronauts (Orion) or seven (Crew Dragon and Starliner), even though NASA plans so far have always been for flights of just four astronauts each time.  They are all, in principle, reusable spacecraft. The interior volume (habitable space for the astronauts) is 9 cubic meters on Orion, 9.3 cubic meters on Crew Dragon, and 11 cubic meters on Starliner.

Orion will also be launched with a Service Model attached, which is being built by Airbus under contract to the European Space Agency.  This Service Module will have the fuel and engines required to help send Orion from earth orbit to the moon, and then fully into lunar orbit and back, as well as power (from solar panels) and supplies of certain consumable items required for longer space flight durations.  With this, Orion will be able to undertake missions of up to 21 days.  The self-contained Crew Dragon can carry out missions of up to 10 days, while the Starliner has the capacity of just 2 1/2 days – providing time to reach the ISS and later return, but not much else.

The cost of developing and building the European Service Module for Orion is being covered by the European Space Agency as its contribution to the program.  For better comparability to the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, the costs of the Service Module for Orion have been excluded from the cost of Orion in the charts below, as it is primarily the Service Module that will give the Orion the capabilities to go beyond earth orbit – capabilities that the Crew Dragon and Starliner do not have.  Had the costs of the Service Module been included (as the Orion is, after all, dependant on it), the disparity in costs between it and the Crew Dragon or Starliner would have been even larger.

The development of Orion began in 2004, as part of the Constellation program of the Bush administration, and has continued ever since.  NASA spent $1.4 billion on it in FY2020, again in FY2021, and the budget proposal is to do so again in FY2022.  Aside from an uncrewed flight in 2014 that was principally to test its heat shield design, the Orion has yet to fly.  Its first real test, still unmanned, will be as part of the first test flight of the SLS, which as noted above is now scheduled for November 2021.

SpaceX and Boeing were awarded the new form of competitive contracts by NASA to build their new spacecraft, demonstrate that they work (with a successful unmanned test flight to the ISS and then a manned flight test), and then fly them on six regular missions carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS.  The designs were by the companies – NASA was only interested in safe and successful flights ferrying crew to the ISS.

Each contractor could use whatever booster they preferred (SpaceX chose the Falcon 9 and Boeing the Atlas V), with the costs of those rocket launches included in the contracts.  The contract awards were announced in September 2014, several years later than the Obama administration had initially proposed due to lack of congressional funding.  The original contracts provided awards of up to $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX, a discrepancy that reflected not that SpaceX would provide a lesser service, but rather that SpaceX offered in their contract bid a lower price.  Boeing was later granted an extra $287.2 million by NASA, in a decision that was criticized by the Office of the Inspector General of NASA, as Boeing (as well as SpaceX) had committed to provide the services agreed to under the contracts for the fixed, agreed upon, price.  Any cost overruns should then have been the responsibility of the contractor.  While Boeing argued it was not really a cost overrun under their contract, others (including the NASA Inspector General) disagreed.

Before the main contracts under the program had been approved, Boeing and SpaceX (along with others) had received smaller contracts to develop their proposals as well as to develop certain technologies that would be needed.  Including those earlier contracts (as well as the extra $287.2 million for Boeing), the total NASA would pay (provided milestones are reached) is $5,108.0 million to Boeing and $3,144.6 million to SpaceX.  For this, each contract provided that the new spacecraft would be developed and tested, with this then followed by six crewed flights of each to the ISS.  Thus the contracts include a combination of development and operational costs, which will be separated in the discussion below.

First, the development costs:

The estimates of the development costs for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner were made by subtracting, from the overall program costs, estimates made in the November 2019 report of the NASA Inspector General’s Office of the costs of the operational (flight) portions of the contracts.  Included in the development costs are the costs of the earlier contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to develop their proposals, as well as the extra $287.1 million that was later provided to Boeing.  Based on this, the total cost (to NASA) of supporting the development of the SpaceX Crew Dragon has been $1.845 billion, while the cost to NASA of the Boeing Starliner (assuming Boeing is ultimately successful in getting it to work properly) will be a bit over $3.0 billion.

The costs assume that the contractors will carry out their contractual commitments in full.  SpaceX so far has (the Crew Dragon is fully operational, and indeed SpaceX is now in its second operational flight, with a crew of four now at the ISS who are scheduled to return in November).  But Boeing has not.  As noted before, its initial unmanned test flight in December 2019 of the Boeing Starliner failed.  The planned re-try was on the pad in late July of this year and expected to fly within days when problems with stuck valves were discovered.  The Starliner had to be taken down and moved to a facility to identify the cause of the problem and fix it, with the flight not now expected until late this year at the earliest.  The extra costs are being borne by Boeing and have not been revealed, but in principle should be added to the $3,008 million cost figure in the chart above.  But they have been kept confidential, so we do not know what that addition would be.

In contrast to the cost to NASA of $1.845 billion for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and $3.0 billion to Boeing for its Starliner (under the new, competition-based, contractual approach), the amount NASA has spent on the Lockheed Orion spacecraft (under its traditional contractual approach) has been far higher.  More than $19.0 billion has already been spent through FY2021, and Orion is still in development.  Other than the early and partial test in 2014, the Orion has yet to be fully tested in flight.  The first such test is currently scheduled, along with the first test of the SLS, for later this year.  At best, it will not be operational until 2023, although more likely later.  Just adding what is anticipated will be needed to continue the development of Orion through FY2023, the total that NASA will spend on it will have reached $21.8 billion.  But the FY2023 cut-off date is in part arbitrary.  While the Orion capsule should be flying by then, there will still be additional expenditures to finalize its design and for further development.  These would add to the overall cost, but we do not know what those are expected to be.

Including costs just through FY2023, the cost of developing Orion is already close to 12 times what it has cost to develop the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and over 7 times what it has cost NASA to develop the Boeing Starliner.  While there are of course differences between the spacecraft, and it may be argued that the Orion is more capable, it is hard to see that such differences account for a cost that is 12 times that of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, or even 7 times the cost of the Boeing Starliner.  And as noted above, the greater capabilities of the Orion derive primarily from the European Service Module, whose costs are not included in the $21.8 billion figure for Orion.

The operational costs of the Orion will also be higher, using for comparability what it would be for a flight to earth orbit.  The most relevant figure is the cost per seat, and the calculations assume four seats will be filled on each flight (as NASA in fact plans, for both the missions to take astronauts to the ISS as well as for the Orion missions):

The costs include not only the cost of using the spacecraft itself, but also, and importantly, the cost of the rocket used to launch the spacecraft into orbit.  The costs of the rockets were included in the NASA contracts with SpaceX and Boeing, as the contracts were for the delivery of crews to the ISS.

The per-seat costs for the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner contracts were calculated following the approach the NASA Inspector General used in its November 2019 report, using its estimate of the operational portion of the contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.  They come to $54.2 million per seat on the SpaceX Crew Dragon and $87.5 million on the Boeing Starliner (before rounding – in the Inspector General’s report one will see rounded figures of $55 million and $90 million, respectively).

The costs of building a new Orion capsule (which can then be reused to some degree) and flying it can be estimated from the announced NASA contracts with Lockheed for future missions.  In September 2019, NASA announced that it had awarded Lockheed an “Orion Production and Operations Contract”, where NASA would pay Lockheed for the Orion spacecraft for use on planned Artemis missions, but where the Orion spacecraft themselves would be reused to a varying degree that will rise over time.  The contracts for the Orions to be used in the first two flights (Artemis I and II) were signed some time before, and one can view these as part of the development costs (as these will be missions testing the Orion capsules).  The September 2019 announcement was that Lockheed would be paid a total of $2.7 billion for the next three missions (Artemis III, IV, and V), with re-use started to a limited degree.  Some high-value electronics, primarily, from the Orion used on the Artemis II mission would be re-used in the capsule for Artemis V.  Future costs would then fall further with greater re-use, but this should still be seen as speculative at this point.

Based on the $2.7 billion figure for the three Artemis missions following the first two, and with four seats on each of those three flights, the per-seat cost for the Orion alone would be $225 million.  To this one would need to add, for comparability, the cost of the rocket launcher.  The Artemis missions would use the SLS, which as discussed above, will cost $2.0 billion per flight.  This would add $500 million per seat (with the four seats per flight), bringing the total to $725 million per seat.

While that is indeed what the cost would be for the lunar missions, it is not an appropriate comparator to the costs of the Crew Dragon and Spaceliner capsules as the rockets they need are just for earth orbit.  For this reason, for the figure in the chart I have used the per-seat cost of what a launch on an Atlas V would be.  The Atlas V is the vehicle that will be used for the Boeing Starliner, and it has a comparable weight to the Orion (excluding the Orion European Service Module).  That per-seat cost, for a launch to earth orbit, would be $266.25 million.

Based on these figures, the operational cost per seat of an Orion capsule is almost 5 times what the per-seat cost is for the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and 3 times the cost on a Boeing Starliner.  These are huge differences.

F.  Conclusion

There was vehement opposition to Obama’s proposal to follow a more commercial approach to ferry crew to the ISS.  This came not only from former astronauts – who as pilots and engineers were taking a position on an issue they really did not know much about, but who were comfortable with the traditional approach.  Of more immediate importance, it came from certain politicians – in particular in the Senate.  The politicians opposed to the Obama proposals, led by Senator Shelby of Alabama, were also mostly (although not entirely) conservative Republican politicians who on other issues claimed to be in favor of free-market approaches.  Yet not here.

We now know that SpaceX delivered on the contracts, with now routine delivery of both cargo and crew to the ISS. Indeed, as I complete this post, an all-private crew of four have just returned from a three-day flight to earth orbit on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft (launched on a Falcon 9).  The flight was a complete success, and showed that flights of people to orbit are no longer restricted to a very small number of large nation-states (specifically Russia, the US, and China).  NASA certainly played an important role in supporting the development of the Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon, as discussed above, but these flights are now private.  If Senator Shelby and his (mostly) Republican colleagues had gotten their way, this never would have happened.  The hope that this would follow was, however, an explicit part of the plan when the Obama administration proposed that NASA contract with private providers to bring crew to the ISS.  And it has.

Boeing is not yet at the point that SpaceX has reached, with its Starliner capsule still to be proven, but it appears likely that they will have worked through their problems by sometime next year (approximately three years after SpaceX succeeded with its first tests).  Meanwhile, even though work on the Orion spacecraft began in 2005 and work on the SLS began in 2011, both the SLS and Orion are still to be tested.  The SLS was supposed to be operational in 2016, but its first operational flight is now scheduled for 2023 and will almost certainly be later.  The key components of the SLS (the engines and the strap-on solid rocket boosters) were all taken from the Space Shuttle or even earlier designs.  It is not at all clear why this should have taken so long.

We also can now work out reasonable estimates of the costs, and can compare them to the costs under the more commercial approach.  In terms of the development costs (planned through FY2023), the SLS will cost an astonishing 65 times what it cost to develop the Falcon Heavy.  The SLS will be able to carry a heavier load, but only about 50% more than what a Falcon Heavy can carry.  It is difficult to see why this would cost 65 times as much.  And it is not just the SLS.  The cost of developing the Ares I, including what had been planned to be spent through FY2014 (when it still would not have been fully ready) would have been 42 times what the similarly sized Falcon 9 cost to develop.  These are mind-boggling high multiples.

The operational costs per launch are also high multiples of what the costs are for commercially developed rockets.  The cost of a launch of the SLS will be 22 times the cost of the recoverable Falcon Heavy.  While it can carry more, the cost per kilogram to low earth orbit will be 13 times higher for the SLS (excluding its development costs) compared to that for the recoverable version of the Falcon Heavy, and 9 times higher when compared to the expendable version.

Similarly, it is expected that development of the Orion capsule (not counting the cost of the Service Module, that the Europeans are developing as their contribution to the program) will by FY2023 have cost almost 12 times the cost of developing the SpaceX Crew Dragon.  And the operational cost per seat will be 5 times higher for the Orion than the cost for the Crew Dragon flights, and 3 times higher than for the Boeing Starliner.

The evidence is clear.  Why then, are the conservative Republican Senators and Members of Congress (as well as a few Democrats, including, significantly, Representative Eddie Bernice Johson, D-Texas, who is the current Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology) so opposed to NASA entering into commercial contracts with SpaceX and others?  The answer, clearly, is the politics of it.  Spending billions of dollars on such hardware keeps many employed, and many of those jobs are in high-wage engineering and technical positions.  From this perspective, the high costs are not a flaw but a feature.

This is not only a waste.  Since budgets are not unlimited such waste has also meant long delays in achieving the intended goals.  The space program has traditionally enjoyed much goodwill in the general population.  But such waste, as well as the resulting long delays in achieving the intended aims, could destroy that goodwill.

That would be unfortunate, although not the end of the world.  One does, however, see the same issues with the military budget, where the stakes are higher.  And the costs are also much higher, with major military programs now costing in the hundreds of billions of dollars rather than the tens of billions for the space program.  An example has been the development of the F-35 fighter jet.  The program began in 1992, the first prototypes (of Lockheed and Boeing) flew in 2000, Lockheed won the contract in 2001, the first planes were manufactured in 2011, and the first squadron became operational in 2015.  That is, it took 23 years to go from the initial design and conceptual work to the first operational unit.  Furthermore, it is expected to be the most expensive military program in history, with over $400 billion expected to be spent to acquire the planes and a further $1.1 trillion to keep them operational over a 50-year life cycle for the program.  That is a total cost of $1.5 trillion, and other estimates place the cost at $1.6 or even $1.7 trillion (and no one will know for sure what it will be until this is all history).

The factors driving such high costs as well multi-decade time frames to go from concept to operations are undoubtedly similar to those that have driven this for major NASA programs such as the Orion and the SLS.  Spending more is politically attractive to those politicians that represent the states and districts where the spending will be done.  But for the military, the stakes (and not simply the dollar amounts) are a good deal higher than they are for the space program.

But it should also be recognized that the cure for this is likely to be more complicated and difficult than what NASA has been able to achieve through changes to its traditional contracting and procurement model.  Industry capabilities will need to be developed, with greater competition introduced.  In major areas there are now often only two or three manufacturers, and sometimes only one, with the capabilities required.

We do, however, now have examples of what can be done.  ULA (United Launch Alliance) had a monopoly on heavy-lift launch vehicles following its creation in 2006 by combining what had been the competing launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed.  SpaceX entered that market, and we saw above what resulted.  If such progress is possible with something as complex as a heavy-lift rocket, it should be possible in at least some other areas of military procurement as well.

 

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Annex:  Why Cost Comparisons of Rockets and Spacecraft are Difficult to Make

One might think that comparisons of costs of rockets as well as spacecraft would be straightforward.  But they are not, for a number of reasons:

a)  First, different sources will often provide different estimates.  There is no single, authoritative, source that one can cite, and one will often see differing estimates in different sources.  Recognizing this, for the purposes here – which are to compare the costs where there is competition (primarily SpaceX) to the costs under NASA procurement from the traditional contractors – I have sought to use estimates that are on the high side of what has been published for the costs of the SpaceX vehicles, and on the low side for the costs of the traditional NASA contractors.  Despite this, the SpaceX costs are still far lower.

b)  An important reason there are these different cost estimates from different sources is that the information on what the costs actually are have often been kept confidential.  SpaceX is the most transparent, but even here what they publish on their website ($62 million for a Falcon 9 launch, and $90 million for a Falcon Heavy) should really be viewed more as a “list price” that will be negotiated.  For NASA, full transparency on the costs can be embarrassing.  For commercial providers, less-than-transparent cost figures may be seen as helpful when they engage in negotiations with those who would purchase their services.

c)  Which brings us to a third factor, which is negotiating power.  Just like when buying a car, the price that will be paid will depend in part on the relative negotiating powers of the parties.  When there is a low-cost competing supplier (such as SpaceX), there will be pressure on higher-cost suppliers to lower their prices.  One has seen this with the prices being charged for launches of the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V rockets.  Negotiating power will also depend on whether one will be a repeat customer or just a one-time user.  For these reasons there will not be one, unique, price that can be cited as the “cost” of launching a particular rocket.  It will depend on the negotiations.

d)  And this also leads to the distinction between the cost of a rocket launch and the price charged.  Ideally, what one wants as the basis for comparison is the cost.  However, the best information available will often be the price that some customer paid.  But that price may include a substantial profit margin if that customer did not have much negotiating power to bargain down the price.  It might also work the other way.  The cost of developing and launching the Boeing Starliner capsule, which was discussed above, is based on what NASA is paying.  Yet because of the repeated problems with the development of the Starliner, Boeing is certainly losing money on that fixed-price contract.  How much Boeing is losing has not been disclosed, and indeed since there are continued problems they do not yet know themselves how much it will have cost in the end.  Hence, in a comparison of the cost of delivering astronauts to the ISS the true cost of the Boeing Starliner will be something more than what NASA is paying, and it is that higher cost which really should be the basis for comparison with the cost of the SpaceX Crew Dragon alternative.

e)  The common basis for comparison is also inherently problematic.  While the standard measure for a rocket (and the one used here) is how many kilograms of payload can be lifted to low earth orbit, specific situations are more complicated.  Depending on the mission, one will want to place the payload into different types of orbits, including different altitudes (from 100 miles to several hundred miles, and still be considered “low”), different angles to the equator (the higher the angle, the higher the share of the world’s land area that would be covered by the satellite over some period, such as a month), and perhaps different requirements on how circular the orbit needs to be (the difference between the highest point in the orbit and the lowest).  There will be different thrust (hence fuel) requirements for each of these, possibly different payload weights that can be handled, and possibly other differences, all of which would end up being reflected in the negotiated price for the launch.

f)  Different payloads also have different requirements on how they must be handled, how they need to be attached to the rocket, the requirements on the fairings (the nose cone shell surrounding the payload to protect it at launch, which is jettisoned once orbital altitude is reached), and so on.  Military launches are also more expensive (and charged accordingly) due to the secrecy arrangements the Defense Department requires.

g)  Different boosters will also have different capabilities.  For a launch into low earth orbit these capabilities might not all be needed, but they may still be reflected in the costs.  The most obvious is the size of the payload.  If the weight is more than a smaller rocket can handle (and the payload cannot be divided into two or more smaller satellites), then they will have to use a larger booster even if the cost per kilogram is higher.

h)  The calculations of the cost per kilogram of payload are also based on the maximum payload each rocket can handle.  But it would be coincidental that any particular payload will be exactly at this maximum weight.  The cost per kilogram will then be higher for a payload that weighs less than this maximum.  While there may be some savings in total costs in launching a payload that is less than the maximum a rocket can handle (somewhat less fuel will be needed, for example), such savings will be modest.  For this reason, SpaceX and others will typically offer to sell, at a low price, such extra space to those with just small satellites, piggy-backing on larger satellites that do not need to use up the full payload capacity of the rocket.  The entity with the larger satellite might then receive a discount from what the cost otherwise would have been.

i)  Finally, one should recognize that there are normally several variants of each launch vehicle, with somewhat different capabilities and costs.  To the extent possible, all the cost estimates in this post are for a single, recent, variant of the vehicles.  The Falcon 9 launch vehicle, for example, is now at what they have named the “Block 5” variant, and the costs of that version are what have been used here.  Earlier versions of the Falcon 9 were labeled v1.0, v1.1, v1.2 or “Full Thrust” (and sometimes referred to as Block 3), and Block 4.

 

There are therefore a number of reasons why one needs to be cautious in judging reported cost differences between various rockets as well as spacecraft.  As noted in the text, cost differences of 10 or 20% certainly, and indeed even 40 or 50%, should not be seen as necessarily significant.  But as the charts show, the cost differences are far higher than this, with the costs of the traditional contractors following the traditional NASA procurement processes many times the costs obtained under the more competitive process the Obama administration introduced to manned space flight (at substantial political cost).

The Ridership Forecasts for the Baltimore-Washington SCMAGLEV Are Far Too High

The United States desperately needs better public transit.  While the lockdowns made necessary by the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19 led to sharp declines in transit use in 2020, with (so far) only a partial recovery, there will remain a need for transit to provide decent basic service in our metropolitan regions.  Lower-income workers are especially dependent on public transit, and many of them are, as we now see, the “essential workers” that society needs to function.  The Washington-Baltimore region is no exception.

Yet rather than focus on the basic nuts and bolts of ensuring quality services on our subways, buses, and trains, the State of Maryland is once again enamored with using the scarce resources available for public transit to build rail lines through our public parkland in order to serve a small elite.  The Purple Line light rail line was such a case.  Its dual rail lines will serve a narrow 16-mile corridor, passing through some of the richest zip codes in the nation, but destroying precious urban parkland.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, with what will be spent on the Purple Line one could instead stop charging fares on the county-run bus services in the entirety of the two counties the Purple Line will pass through (Montgomery and Prince George’s), and at the same time double those bus services (i.e. double the lines, or double the service frequency, or some combination).

The administration of Governor Hogan of Maryland nonetheless pushed the Purple Line through, although construction has now been halted for close to a year due to cost overruns leading the primary construction contractor to withdraw.  Hogan’s administration is now promoting the building of a superconducting, magnetically-levitating, train (SCMAGLEV) between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, DC, with a stop at BWI Airport.  Over $35 million has already been spent, with a massive Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) produced.  As required by federal law, the DEIS has been made available for public comment, with comments due by May 24.

It is inevitable that such a project will lead to major, and permanent, environmental damage.  The SCMAGLEV would travel partially in tunnels underground, but also on elevated pylons parallel to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (administered by the National Park Service).  The photos at the top of this post show what it would look like at one section of the parkway.  The question that needs to be addressed is whether any benefits will outweigh the costs (both environmental and other costs), and ridership is central to this.  If ridership is likely to be well less than that forecast, the whole case for the project collapses.  It will not cover its operating and maintenance costs, much less pay back even a portion of what will be spent to build it (up to $17 billion according to the DEIS, but likely to be far more based on experience with similar projects).  Nor would the purported economic benefits then follow.

I have copied below comments I submitted on the DEIS forecasts.  Readers may find them of interest as this project illustrates once again that despite millions of dollars being spent, the consulting firms producing such analyses can get some very basic things wrong.  The issue I focus on for the proposed SCMAGLEV is the ridership forecasts.  The SCMAGLEV project sponsors forecast that the SCMAGLEV will carry 24.9 million riders (one-way trips) in 2045.  The SCMAGLEV will require just 15 minutes to travel between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington (with a stop at BWI), and is expected to charge a fare of $120 (roundtrip) on average and up to $160 at peak hours.  As one can already see from the fares, at best it would serve a narrow elite.

But there is already a high-speed train providing premier-level service between Baltimore and Washington – the Acela service of Amtrak.  It takes somewhat longer – 30 minutes currently – but its fare is also somewhat lower at $104 for a roundtrip, plus it operates from more convenient stations in Baltimore and Washington.  Importantly, it operates now, and we thus have a sound basis for forecasts of what its ridership might be in the future.

One can thus compare the forecast ridership on the proposed SCMAGLEV to the forecast for Acela ridership (also in the DEIS) in a scenario of no SCMAGLEV.  One would expect the forecasts to be broadly comparable.  One could allow that perhaps it might be somewhat higher on the SCMAGLEV, but probably less than twice as high and certainly less than three times as high.  But one can calculate from figures in the DEIS that the forecast SCMAGLEV ridership in 2045 would be 133 times higher than what they forecast Acela ridership would be in that year (in a scenario of no SCMAGLEV).  For those going just between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington (i.e. excluding BWI travelers), the forecast SCMAGLEV ridership would be 154 times higher than what it would be on the comparable Acela.  This is absurd.

And it gets worse.  For reasons that are not clear, the base year figures for Acela ridership in the Baltimore-Washington market are more than eight times higher in the DEIS than figures that Amtrak itself has produced.  It is possible that the SCMAGLEV analysts included Acela riders who have boarded north of Baltimore (such as in Philadelphia or New York) and then traveled through to DC (or from DC would pass through Baltimore to ultimate destinations further north).  But such travelers should not be included, as the relevant travelers who might take the SCMAGLEV would only be those whose trips begin in either Baltimore or in Washington and end in the other metropolitan area.  The project sponsors have made no secret that they hope eventually to build a SCMAGLEV line the full distance between Washington and New York, but that would at a minimum be in the distant future.  It is not a source of riders included in their forecasts for a Baltimore to Washington SCMAGLEV.

The Amtrak forecasts of what it expects its Acela ridership would be, by market (including between Baltimore and Washington) and under various investment scenarios, come from its recent NEC FUTURE (for Northeast Corridor Future) study, for which it produced a Final Environmental Impact Statement.  Using Amtrak’s forecasts of what its Acela ridership would be in a scenario where major investments allowed the Acela to take just 20 minutes to go between Baltimore and Washington, the SCMAGLEV ridership forecasts were 727 times as high (in 2040).  That is complete nonsense.

My comment submitted on the DEIS, copied below, goes further into these results and discusses as well how the SCMAGLEV sponsors could have gotten their forecasts so absurdly wrong.  But the lesson here is that the consultants producing such forecasts are paid by project sponsors who wish to see the project built.  Thus they have little interest in even asking the question of why they have come up with an estimate that 24.9 million would take a SCMAGLEV in 2045 (requiring 15 minutes on the train itself to go between Baltimore and DC) while ridership on the Acela in that year (in a scenario where the Acela would require 5 minutes more, i.e. 20 minutes, and there is no SCMAGLEV) would be about just 34,000.

One saw similar issues with the Purple Line.  An examination of the ridership forecasts made for it found that in about half of the transit analysis zone pairs, the predicted ridership on all forms of public transit (buses, trains, and the Purple Line as well) was less than what they forecast it would be on the Purple Line only.  This is mathematically impossible.  And the fact that half were higher and half were lower suggests that the results they obtained were basically just random.  They also forecast that close to 20,000 would travel by the Purple Line into Bethesda each day but only about 10,000 would leave (which would lead to Bethesda’s population exploding, if true).  The source of this error was clear (they mixed up two formats for the trips – what is called the production/attraction format with origin/destination), but it mattered.  They concluded that the Purple Line had to be a rail line rather than a bus service in order to handle their predicted 20,000 riders each day on the segment to Bethesda.

It may not be surprising that private promoters of such projects would overlook such issues.  They may stand to gain (i.e. from the construction contracts, or from an increase in land values next to station sites), even though society as a whole loses.  Someone else (government) is paying.  But public officials in agencies such as the Maryland Department of Transportation should be looking at what is the best way to ensure quality and affordable transit services for the general public.  Problems develop once the officials see their role as promoters of some specific project.  They then seek to come up with a rationale to justify the project, and see their role as surmounting all the hurdles encountered along the way.  They are not asking whether this is the best use of scarce public resources to address our very real transit needs.

A high-speed magnetically-levitating train (with superconducting magnets, no less), may look attractive.  But officials should not assume such a shiny new toy will address our transit issues.

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May 22, 2021

Comment Submitted on the DEIS for SCMAGLEV

The Ridership Forecasts Are Far Too High

A.  Introduction

I am opposed to the construction of the proposed SCMAGLEV project between Baltimore and Washington, DC.  A key issue for any such system is whether ridership will be high enough to compensate for the environmental damage that is inevitable with such a project.  But the ridership forecasts presented in the DEIS are hugely flawed.  They are far too high and simply do not meet basic conditions of plausibility.  At more plausible ridership levels, the case for such a project collapses.  It will not cover its operating costs, much less pay back any of the investment (of up to $17 billion according to the DEIS, but based on experience likely to be far higher).  Nor will the purported positive economic benefits then follow.  But the damage to the environment will be permanent.

Specifically, there is rail service now between Baltimore and Washington, at three levels of service (the high-speed Acela service of Amtrak, the regular Amtrak Regional service, and MARC).  Ridership on the Acela service, as it is now and with what is expected with upgrades in future years, provides a benchmark that can be used.  While it could be argued that ridership on the proposed SCMAGLEV would be higher than ridership on the Acela trains, the question is how much higher.  I will discuss below in more detail the factors to take into account in making such a comparison, but briefly, the Acela service takes 30 minutes today to go between Baltimore and Washington, while the SCMAGLEV would take 15 minutes.  But given that it also takes time to get to the station and on the train, and then to the ultimate destination at the other end, the time savings would be well less than 50%.  The fare would also be higher on the SCMAGLEV (at an average, according to the DEIS, of $120 for a round-trip ticket but up to $160 at peak hours, versus an average of $104 on the Acela).  In addition, the stations the SCMAGLEV would use for travel between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington are less conveniently located (with poorer connections to local transit) than the Acela uses.

Thus while it could be argued that the SCMAGLEV would attract more riders than the Acela, even this is not clear.  But being generous, one could allow that it might attract somewhat more riders.  The question is how many.  And this is where it becomes completely implausible.  Based on the ridership forecasts in the DEIS, for both the SCMAGLEV and for the Acela (in a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built), the SCMAGLEV in 2045 would carry 133 times what ridership would be on the Acela.  Excluding the BWI ridership on both, it would be 154 times higher.  There is no way to describe this other than that it is just nonsense.  And with other, likely more accurate, forecasts of what Acela ridership would be in the future (discussed below) the ratios become higher still.

Similarly, if the SCMAGLEV will be as attractive to MARC riders as the project sponsors forecast it will be, then most of those MARC riders would now be on the modestly less attractive Acela.  But they aren’t.  The Acela is 30 minutes faster than MARC (the SCMAGLEV would be 45 minutes faster), yet 28 times as many riders choose MARC over Acela between Baltimore and Washington.  I suspect the fare difference ($16 per day on MARC, vs. $104 on the Acela) plays an important role.  The model used could have been tested by calculating a forecast with their model of what Acela ridership would be under current conditions, with this then compared this to what the actual figures are.  Evidently this was not done.  Had they, their predicted Acela ridership would likely have been a high multiple of the actual and it would have been clear that their modeling framework has problems.

Why are the forecasts off by orders of magnitude?  Unfortunately, given what has been made available in the DEIS and with the accompanying papers on ridership, one cannot say for sure.  But from what has been made available, there are indications of where the modeling approach taken had issues.  I will discuss these below.

In the rest of this comment I will first discuss the use of Acela service and its ridership (both the actual now and as projected) as a basis for comparison to the ridership forecasts made for the SCMAGLEV.  They would be basically similar services, where a modest time saving on the SCMAGLEV (15 minutes now, but only 5 minutes in the future if further investments are made in the Acela service that would cut its Baltimore to DC time to just 20 minutes) is offset by a higher fare and less convenient station locations.  I will then discuss some reasons that might explain why the SCMAGLEV ridership forecasts are so hugely out-of-line with what plausible numbers might be.

B.  A Comparison of SCMAGLEV Ridership Forecasts to Those for Acela  

The DEIS provides ridership forecasts for the SCMAGLEV for both 2030 (several years after the DEIS says it would be opened, so ridership would then be stable after an initial ramping up) and for a horizon year of 2045.  I will focus here on the 2045 forecasts, and specifically on the alternative where the destination station in Baltimore is Camden Yards.  The DEIS also has forecasts for ridership in an alternative where the SCMAGLEV line would end in the less convenient Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, which is significantly further from downtown and with poorer connections to local transit options.  The Camden Yards station is more comparable to Penn Station – Baltimore, which the Acela (and Amtrak Regional trains and one of the MARC lines) use.  Penn Station – Baltimore has better local transit connections and would be more convenient for many potential riders, but this will of course depend on the particular circumstances of the rider – where he or she will be starting from and where their particular destination will be.  It will, in particular, be more convenient for riders coming from North and Northeast of Baltimore than Camden Yards would be.  And those from South and Southwest of Baltimore would be more likely to drive directly to the DC region than try to reach Camden Yards, or they would alight at BWI.

The DEIS also provides forecasts of what ridership would be on the existing train services between Baltimore and Washington:  the Acela services (operated by Amtrak), the regular Amtrak Regional trains, and the MARC commuter service operated by the State of Maryland.  Note also that the 2045 forecasts for the train services are for both a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built and then what they forecast the reduced ridership would be with a SCMAGLEV option.  For the purposes here, what is of interest is the scenario with no SCMAGLEV.

The SCMAGLEV would provide a premium service, requiring 15 minutes to go between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, DC.  Acela also provides a premium service and currently takes 30 minutes, while the regular Amtrak Regional trains take 40 to 45 minutes and MARC service takes 60 minutes.  But the fares differ substantially.  Using the DEIS figures (with all prices and fares expressed in base year 2018 dollars), the SCMAGLEV would charge an average fare of $120 for a round-trip (Baltimore-Washington), and up to $160 for a roundtrip at peak times.  The Acela also has a high fare for its also premium service, although not as high as SCMAGLEV, charging an average of $104 for a roundtrip (using the DEIS figures).  But Amtrak Regional trains charge only $34 for a similar roundtrip, and MARC only $16.

Acela service thus provides a reasonable basis for comparison to what SCMAGLEV would provide, with the great advantage that we know now what Acela ridership has actually been.  This provides a firm base for a forecast of what Acela ridership would be in a future year in a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built.  And while the ridership on the two would not be exactly the same, one should expect them to be in the same ballpark.

But they are far from that:

  DEIS Forecasts of SCMAGLEV vs. Acela Ridership, Annual Trips in 2045

Route

SCMAGLEV Trips

Acela Trips

Ratio

Baltimore – DC only

19,277,578

125,226

154 times as much

All, including BWI

24,938,652

187,887

133 times as much

Sources:  DEIS, Main Report Table 4.2-3; and Table D-4-48 of Appendix D.4 of the DEIS

Using estimates just from the DEIS, the project sponsor is forecasting that annual (one-way) trips on the SCMAGLEV in 2045 would be 133 times what they would be in that year on the Acela (in a scenario where the SCMAGLEV is not built).  And it would be 154 times as much for the Baltimore – Washington riders only.  This is nonsense.  One could have a reasonable debate if the SCMAGLEV figures were twice as high, and maybe even if they were three times as high.  But it is absurd that they would be 133 or 154 times as high.

And it gets worse.  The figures above are all taken from the DEIS.  But the base year Acela ridership figures in the DEIS (Appendix D.4, Table D.4-45) differ substantially from figures Amtrak itself has produced in its recent NEC FUTURE study.  This review of future investment options in Northeast Corridor (Washington to Boston) Amtrak service was concluded in July 2017.  As part of this it provided forecasts of what future Acela ridership would be under various alternatives, including one (its Alternative 3) where Acela trains would be substantially upgraded and require just 20 minutes for the trip between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, DC.  This would be quite similar to what SCMAGLEV service would be.

But for reasons that are not clear, the base year figures for Acela ridership between Baltimore and Washington differ substantially between what the SCMAGLEV DEIS has and what NEC FUTURE has.  The figure in the NEC FUTURE study (for a base year of 2013) puts the number of riders (one-way) between Baltimore and Washington (and not counting those who boarded north of Baltimore, at Philadelphia or New York for example, and then rode through to Washington, and similarly for those going from Washington to Baltimore) at just 17,595.  The DEIS for the SCMAGLEV put the similar Acela ridership (for a base year of 2017) at 147,831 (calculated from Table D.4-45, of Appendix D.4).  While the base years differ (2013 vs. 2017), the disparity cannot be explained by that.  It is far too large.  My guess would be that the DEIS counted all Acela travelers taking up seats between Baltimore and Washington, including those who alighted north of Baltimore (or whose destination from Washington was north of Baltimore), and not just those travelers traveling solely between Washington and Baltimore.  But the SCMAGLEV will be serving only the Baltimore-Washington market, with no interconnections with the train routes coming from north of Baltimore.

What was the source of the Acela ridership figure in the DEIS of 147,831 in 2017?  That is not clear.  Table D.4-45 of Appendix D.4 says that its source is Table 3-10 of the “SCMAGLEV Final Ridership Report”, dated November 8, 2018.  But that report, which is available along with the other DEIS reports (with a direct link at https://bwmaglev.info/index.php/component/jdownloads/?task=download.send&id=71&catid=6&m=0&Itemid=101), does not have a Table 3-10.  Significant portions of that report were redacted, but in its Table of Contents no reference is shown to a Table 3-10 (even though other redacted tables, such as Tables 5-2 and 6-3, are still referenced in the Table of Contents, but labeled as redacted).

One can only speculate on why there is no Table 3-10 in the Final Ridership Report.  Perhaps it was deleted when someone discovered that the figures reported there, which were then later used as part of the database for the ridership forecast models, were grossly out of line with the Amtrak figures.  The Amtrak figure for Acela ridership for Baltimore-Washington passengers of 17,595 (in 2013) is less than one-eighth of the figure on Acela ridership shown in the DEIS or 147,831 (in 2017).

It can be difficult for an outsider to know how many of those riding on the Acela between Washington and Baltimore are passengers going just between those two cities (as well as BWI).  Most of the passengers riding on that segment will be going on to (or coming from) cities further north.  One would need access to ticket sales data.  But it is reasonable to assume that Amtrak itself would know this, and therefore that the figures in the NEC FUTURE study would likely be accurate.  Furthermore, in the forecast horizon years, where Amtrak is trying to show what Acela (and other rail) ridership would grow to with alternative investment programs, it is reasonable to assume that Amtrak would provide relatively optimistic (i.e. higher) estimates, as higher estimates are more likely to convince Congress to provide the funding that would be required for such investments.

The Amtrak figures would in any case provide a suitable comparison to what SCMAGLEV’s future ridership might be.  The Amtrak forecasts are for 2040, so for the SCMAGLEV forecasts I interpolated to produce an estimate for 2040 assuming a constant rate of growth between the forecast SCMAGLEV ridership in 2030 and that for 2045.  Both the NEC FUTURE and SCMAGLEV figures include the stop at BWI.

    Forecasts of SCMAGLEV (DEIS) vs. Acela (NEC FUTURE) Ridership between Baltimore and Washington, Annual Trips in 2040 

Alternative

SCMAGLEV Trips

Acela Trips

Ratio

No Action

22,761,428

26,177

870 times as much

Alternative 1

22,761,428

26,779

850 times as much

Alternative 2

22,761,428

29,170

780 times as much

Alternative 3

22,761,428

31,291

727 times as much

Sources:  SCMAGLEV trips interpolated from figures on forecast ridership in 2030 and 2045 (Camden Yards) in Table 4.2-3 of DEIS.  Acela trips from NEC FUTURE Final EIS, Volume 2, Appendix B.08.

The Acela ridership figures are those estimated under various investment scenarios in the rail service in the Northeast Corridor.  NEC FUTURE examined a “No Action” scenario with just minimal investments, and then various alternative investment levels to produce increasingly capable services.  Alternative 3 (of which there were four sub-variants, but all addressing alternative investments between New York and Boston and thus not affecting directly the Washington-Baltimore route) would upgrade Acela service to the extent that it would go between Baltimore and Washington in just 20 minutes.  This would be very close to the 15 minutes for the SCMAGLEV.  Yet even with such a comparable service, the SCMAGLEV DEIS is forecasting that its service would carry 727 times as many riders as what Amtrak has forecast for its Acela service (in a scenario where there is no SCMAGLEV).  This is complete nonsense.

To be clear, I would stress again that the forecast future Acela ridership figures are a scenario under various possible investment programs by Amtrak.  The investment program in Alternative 3 would upgrade Acela service to a degree where the Baltimore – Washington trip (with a stop at BWI) would take just 20 minutes.  The NEC FUTURE study forecasts that in such a scenario the Baltimore-Washington ridership on Acela would total a bit over 31,000 trips in the year 2040.  In contrast, the DEIS for the SCMAGLEV forecasts that there would in that year be close to 23 million trips taken on the similar SCMAGLEV service, requiring 15 minutes to make such a trip.  Such a disparity makes no sense.

C.  How Could the Forecasts be so Wrong?

A well-known consulting firm, Louis Berger, prepared the ridership forecasts, and their “Final Ridership Report” dated November 8, 2018, referenced above, provides an overview on the approach they took.  Unfortunately, while I appreciate that the project sponsor provided a link to this report along with the rest of the DEIS (I had asked for this, having seen references to it in the DEIS), the report that was posted had significant sections redacted.  Due to those redactions, and possibly also limitations in what the full report itself might have included (such as summaries of the underlying data), it is impossible to say for sure why the forecasts of SCMAGLEV ridership were close to three orders of magnitude greater than what ridership has been and is expected to be on comparable Acela service.

Thus I can only speculate.  But there are several indications of what may have led the SCMAGLEV estimates to be so out of line with ridership on a service that is at least broadly comparable.  Specifically:

1)  As noted above, there were apparent problems in assembling existing data on rail ridership for the Baltimore-Washington market, in particular for the Acela.  The ridership numbers for the Acela in the DEIS were more than eight times higher in their base year (2017) than what Amtrak had in an only slightly earlier base year (2013).  The ridership numbers on Amtrak Regional trains (for Baltimore-Washington riders) were closer but still substantially different:  409,671 in Table D.4-45 of the DEIS (for 2017), vs. 172,151 in NEC FUTURE (for 2013).

Table D.4-45 states that its source for this data on rail ridership is a Table 3-10 in the Final Ridership Report of November 8, 2018.  But as noted previously, such a table is not there – it was either never there or it was redacted.  Thus it is impossible to determine why their figures differ so much from those of Amtrak.  But the differences for the Acela figures (more than a factor of eight) are huge, i.e. close to an order of magnitude by itself.  While it is impossible to say for sure, my guess (as noted above) is that the Acela ridership numbers in the DEIS included travelers whose trip began, or would end, in destinations north of Baltimore, who then traveled through Baltimore on their way to, or from, Washington, DC.  But such travelers are not part of the market the SCMAGLEV would serve.

2)  In modeling the choice those traveling between Baltimore and Washington would have between SCMAGLEV and alternatives, the analysts collapsed all the train options (Acela, Amtrak Regional, and MARC) into one.  See page 61 of the Ridership Report.  They create a weighted average for a single “train” alternative, and they note that since (in their figures) MARC ridership makes up almost 90% of the rail market, the weighted averages for travel time and the fare will be essentially that of MARC.

Thus they never looked at Acela as an alternative, with a service level not far from that of SCMAGLEV.  Nor do they even consider the question of why so many MARC riders (67.5% of MARC riders in 2045 if the Camden Yards option is chosen – see page D-56 of Appendix D-4 of the DEIS) are forecast to divert to the SCMAGLEV, but are not doing so now (nor in the future) to Acela.  According to Table D-45 of Appendix D.4 of the DEIS, in their data for their 2017 base year, there are 28 times as many MARC riders as on Acela between downtown Baltimore and downtown Washington, and 20 times as many with those going to and from the BWI stop included.  Evidently, they do not find the Acela option attractive.  Why should they then find the SCMAGLEV train attractive?

3)  The answer as to why MARC riders have not chosen to ride on the Acela almost certainly has something to do with the difference in the fares.  A round-trip on MARC costs $16 a day.  A round trip on Acela costs, according to the DEIS, an average of $104 a day.  That is not a small difference.  For someone commuting 5 days a week and 50 weeks a year (or 250 days a year), the annual cost on MARC would be $4,000 but $26,000 a year on the Acela.  And it would be an even higher $30,000 a year on the SCMAGLEV (based on an average fare of $120 for a round trip), and $40,000 a year ($160 a day) at peak hours (which would cover the times commuters would normally use).  Even for those moderately well off, $40,000 a year for commuting would be a significant expense, and not an attractive alternative to MARC with its cost of just one-tenth of this.

If such costs were properly taken into account in the forecasting model, why did it nonetheless predict that most MARC riders would switch to the SCMAGLEV?  This is not fully clear as the model details were not presented in the redacted report, but note that the modelers assigned high dollar amounts for the time value of money ($31.00 to $46.50 for commuters and other non-business travel, and $50.60 to $75.80 for business travel – see page 53 of the Ridership Report).  However, even at such high values, the numbers do not appear to be consistent.  Taking a SCMAGLEV (15 minute trip) rather than MARC (60 minutes) would save 45 minutes each way or 1 1/2 hours a day.  Only at the very high end value of time for business travelers (of $75.80 per hour, or $113.70 for 1 1/2 hours) would this value of time offset the fare difference of $104 (using the average SCMAGLEV fare of $120 minus the MARC fare of $16).  And even that would not suffice for travelers at peak hours (with its SCMAGLEV fare of $160).

But there is also a more basic problem.  It is wrong to assume that travelers on MARC treat their 60 minutes on the train as all wasted time.  They can read, do some work, check their emails, get some sleep, or plan their day.  The presumption that they would pay amounts similar to what some might on average earn in an hour based on their annual salaries is simply incorrect.  And as noted above, if it were correct, then one would see many more riders on the Acela than one does (and similarly riders on the Amtrak Regional trains, that require about 40 minutes for the Washington to Baltimore trip, with an average fare of $34 for a round trip).

There is a similar issue for those who drive.  Those who drive do not place a value on the time spent in their cars equal to what they would earn in an hourly equivalent of their regular salary.  They may well want to avoid traffic jams, which are stressful and frustrating for other reasons, but numerous studies have found that a simple value-of-time calculation based on annual salaries does not explain why so many commuters choose to drive.

4)  Data for the forecasting model also came in part from two personal surveys.  One was an in-person survey of travelers encountered on MARC, at either the MARC BWI Station or onboard Penn Line trains, or at BWI airport.  The other was an online internet survey, where they unfortunately redacted out how they chose possible respondents.

But such surveys are unreliable, with answers that depend critically on how the questions are phrased.  The Final Ridership report does not include the questionnaire itself (most such reports would), so one cannot know what bias there might have been in how the questions were worded.  As an example (and admittedly an exaggerated example, to make the point) were the MARC riders simply asked whether they would prefer a much faster, 15 minute, trip?  Or were they asked whether they would pay an extra $104 per day ($144 at peak hours) to ride a service that would save them 45 minutes each way on the train?

But even such willingness to pay questions are notoriously unreliable.  An appropriate follow-up question to a MARC rider saying they would be willing to pay up to an extra $144 a day to ride a SCMAGLEV, would be why are they evidently not now riding the Acela (at an extra $88 a day) for a ride just 15 minutes longer than what it would be on the SCMAGLEV.

One therefore has to be careful in interpreting and using the results from such a survey in forecasting how travelers would behave.  If current choices (e.g. using the MARC rather than the Acela) do not reflect the responses provided, one should be concerned.

5)  Finally, the particular mathematical form used to model the choices the future travelers would make can make a big difference to the findings.  The Final Ridership Report briefly explains (page 53) that it used a multinomial logit model as the basis for its modeling.  Logit functions assign a continuous probability (starting from 0 and rising to 100%) of some event occurring.  In this model, the event is that a traveler going from one travel zone to another will choose to travel via the SCMAGLEV, or not.  The likelihood of choosing to travel via the SCMAGLEV will be depicted as an S-shaped function, starting at zero and then smoothly rising (following the S-shape) until it reaches 100%, depending on, among other factors, what the travel time savings might be.

The results that such a model will predict will depend critically, of course, on the particular parameters chosen.  But the heavily redacted Final Ridership Report does not show what those parameters were nor how they were chosen or possibly estimated, nor even the complete set of variables used in that function.  The report says little (in what remains after the redactions) beyond that they used that functional form.

A feature of such logit models is that while the choices are discrete (one either will ride the SCMAGLEV or will not), it allows for “fuzziness” around the turning points, that recognize that between individuals, even if they confront a similar combination of variables (a combination of cost, travel time, and other measured attributes), some will simply prefer to drive while some will prefer to take the train.  That is how people are.  But then, while a higher share might prefer to take a train (or the SCMAGLEV) when travel times fall (by close to 45 minutes with the SCMAGLEV when compared to their single “train” option that is 90% MARC, and by variable amounts for those who drive depending on the travel zone pairs), how much higher that share will be will depend on the parameters they selected for their logit.

With certain parameters, the responses can be sensitive to even small reductions in travel times, and the predicted resulting shifts then large.  But are those parameters reasonable?  As noted previously, a test would have been whether the model, with the parameters chosen, would have predicted accurately the number of riders actually observed on the Acela trains in the base year.  But it does not appear such a test was done.  At least no such results were reported to test whether the model was validated or not.

Thus there are a number of possible reasons why the forecast ridership on the SCMAGLEV differs so much from what one currently observes for ridership on the Acela, and from what one might reasonably expect Acela ridership to be in the future.  It is not possible to say whether these are indeed the reasons why the SCMAGLEV forecasts are so incredibly out of line with what one observes for the Acela.  There may be, and indeed likely are, other reasons as well.  But due to issues such as those outlined here, one can understand the possible factors behind SCMAGLEV ridership forecasts that deviate so markedly from plausibility.

D.  Conclusion

The ridership forecasts for the SCMAGLEV are vastly over-estimated.  Predicted ridership on the SCMAGLEV is a minimum of two, and up to three, orders of magnitude higher than what has been observed on, and can reasonably be forecast for, the Acela.  One should not be getting predicted ridership that is more than 100 times what one observes on a comparable, existing (and thus knowable), service.

With ridership on the proposed system far less than what the project sponsors have forecast, the case for building the SCMAGLEV collapses.  Operational and maintenance costs would not be covered, much less any possibility of paying back a portion of the billions of dollars spent to build it, nor will the purported economic benefits follow.

However, the harm to the environment will have been done.  Even if the system is then shut down (due to the forecast ridership never materializing), it will not be possible to reverse much of that environmental damage.

The US very much needs to improve its public transit.  It is far too difficult, with resulting harm both to the economy and to the population, to move around in the Baltimore-Washington region.  But fixing this will require a focus on the basic nuts and bolts of operating, maintaining, and investing in the transit systems we have, including the trains and buses.  This might not look as attractive as a magnetically levitating train, but will be of benefit.  And it will be of benefit to the general public – in particular to those who rely on public transit – and not just to a narrow elite that can afford $120 fares.  Money for public transit is scarce.  It should not be wasted on shiny new toys.