Tickets to Space: The Price Just Doubled.

You would think that with all the competition that is starting to appear for access to low earth orbit that prices would be falling through the floor, so to speak. Taking a quick look over what the going rate might be for say a Dragon capsule with a Falcon 9 underneath it you find yourself paying a cool $100 million or so and you can take yourself and 6 friends into LEO, or just shy of $17 million a pop. If we use that as a benchmark for the cheapest form of travel that is, as of yet, unproven then NASA’s previous costs of about $26 million per astronaut when using the Russian Soyuz craft seem quite reasonable.

Unfortunately that price relies on a couple of factors that are going to change once the Shuttle is retired, and it seems that Russia is no slouch when it comes to pricing those factors in:

WASHINGTON – The price for American astronauts to hitch a ride on a Russian spaceship is going sky high.

NASA on Tuesday signed a contract to pay $55.8 million per astronaut for six Americans to fly into space on Russian Soyuz capsules in 2013 and 2014. NASA needs to get rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station because it plans to retire the space shuttle fleet later this year.

NASA now pays half as much, about $26.3 million per astronaut, when it uses Russian ships. NASA spokesman John Yembrick said the cost is going up because Russia has to build more capsules for the extra flights. NASA had already agreed to pay as much as $51 million a seat for flights in 2011 and 2012, before the latest increase.

Really it comes as little suprise that the price jumped significantly once NASA started asking for a serious number of seats. Soyuz spacecraft really aren’t that big (see here for a scale drawing vs the Shuttle, it could fit a couple Soyuz in its payload bay) and can only take 3 space faring humans at a time. Energia,  the company that builds the Soyuz capsules and rockets, is currently producing 5 full launch systems a year which gives Russia 15 seats a year to play with. Considering NASA launches around 4~5 Shuttles per year with up to 7 astronauts in each you can see that if they’re planning to launch even half that many people on Russian crafts they’re going to need to build a fair few more launch systems to cope. It doesn’t really help that Energia will need to build some new infrastructure to increase their production capacity as their current 5 per year is pretty much the maximum they can build.

This should put it into perspective just how much of a blow to the United States losing the Shuttle is. Whilst I can still appreciate some of the work they did (Ares V was set to be an absolute monster of a rocket) the launch gap they’ve put themselves into is incomprehensible. Many years ago when they began talks of retiring the Shuttle fleet there really wasn’t any alternative but to buy Russian rides and even then they knew that their capabilities can’t support both Russia and the US. Couple that with the fact that they could’ve spent some of the money they had for constellation on say man rating the ATLAS V (which Bigelow intends to do, but NASA rejected as it was too “high risk” to reach the deadline of 2011) they could’ve avoided this situation entirely.

It doesn’t help that people keep throwing fuel on the fire by suggesting that the Shuttle be extended past its current end date. Sure it would help close the gap in launch capability but they would’ve had to had that extension in a couple years ago so that critical infrastructure, such as the external tank construction plants, wouldn’t have been shut down. Couple that with the fact that the Shuttle program costs $2.4 billion just to keep it alive (regardless of how many Shuttles are launched) you’re looking at huge costs that will net a very minimal  benefit and will likely kill off many other projects due to NASA’s budget constraints. There’s really little sense in trying to revive something when you’ve already relegated yourself to letting it go.

The huge cost of the Shuttle is nothing new either, but it would seem a lot better if the shuttle was used as it was designed to be. Despite its design by committee the Shuttle was designed to be launched often, up to 12 times a year (that’s 1 per month folks). If we were launching that often then the costs of the standing army would seem a lot more feasible as instead of some $400~$600 million costs  you’d be much closer to $200 million, a sizable cut. That goal was never reached unfortunately although NASA did manage to get 9 launches done in 1985, which seems almost impossible now.

It is really unfortunate that it’s too late to do much about the manned flight situation in the US, but there is hope on the horizon. With the Falcon 9 hopefully blasting into orbit sometime this or next month we’re not too far away from a private company resupplying the ISS, and from there its only a small step for astronauts to start hitching rides up there to. Maybe NASA needed to lose its capability in order to rethink what they’re doing, and hopefully they take this opportunity to do so.

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