I was reading an editorial by Robert Zubrin on the Mars Society website yesterday, and although he waxes extremely dramatic in the article, one of the things he said gave me pause. Referring to the Falcon 9/Dragon launch last week, he said:
The SpaceX team…accomplished a feat previously reserved for major governments. They did it on a budget one-tenth the size and a schedule one-quarter the length of that assumed as necessary by conventional bureaucratic planners in America.
I can’t verify those “numbers” such as they are, but it did lead me to do a little bit of research on my own.
First, I decided to compare the cost of launching the first of the Dragon spacecraft with the first of the Gemini spacecraft. I chose Gemini instead of Mercury because the Dragon is a much more capable vehicle than any of the Mercury capsules, which were essentially large space suits. The Dragon, like Gemini, can carry more than one passenger, can change its own orbit, and can perform rendezvous maneuvers.
I want to make it clear that this is an extremely rough comparison, and you should be cautious drawing too many conclusions from it. I need hardly list the circumstances of the two programs that were different: NASA was breaking completely new ground, whereas SpaceX could stand on the shoulders of giants, for instance. Furthermore, I don’t want to read through detailed budget documents because I need to stay away for the rest of the day, so I used extrapolations from summaries instead.
But with that said, the data suggest something interesting. Let me break it down.
The first unmanned Gemini capsule launched in April of 1964. NASA’s budget that year was about $33 billion 2007 dollars. If we assume that half of that was for manned space flight (in reality it probably would’ve been closer to 90%, based on information from the NASA pocket statistics) then the cost to launch Gemini 1 is somewhere around $16.5 billion. If you amortize that over 5 years, then you’re looking at a nominal cost of $3 billion 2007 dollars per year. Let’s halve that again, since a big chunk goes toward astronaut training and support, which so far SpaceX has not had to bother with. So that’s $1.5 billion per year.
I said I was playing fast and loose with the data, right? I encourage you to double-check my numbers.
According to numerous internet sources (data from SpaceX itself seems to be missing), the cost for developing and launching the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft over five years from 2005 to 2010 is somewhere between $200 and $400 million. I’ll go on the high end and assume $400 million. That’s less than $100 million a year. In other words, and in extremely rough numbers, the Falcon 9 and the Dragon together cost more than an order of magnitude less to develop than Gemini.
And let’s not forget. Gemini didn’t launch on a NASA rocket. It wasn’t until Saturn that NASA was using its own homemade rockets – Gemini launched on an Titan II purchased on the Air Force. So that $1.5 billion was just for the capsule.
And now Elon Musk claims that we can build a heavy launch vehicle to rival NASA’s eternally delayed Ares V rocket for a tenth of its cost or less. He could probably do it faster, but then again I could probably do it faster without Congress riding me. This is the power of the market incentive – corporations will find a way to do what makes them money, and there’s potentially a lot of money to be made in low Earth orbit. Imagine if there was quick money to be made on the Moon, or Mars? We’d be there in ten years or less.
I don’t necessarily agree with Dr. Zubrin that SpaceX has started a space revolution, but I do think that they’ve written the first sentence in an exciting new chapter of space exploration. One thing is for sure: if I ever want to go to space, I won’t be doing it in a NASA spacecraft. It’ll be a privately-owned ship.