Examining Realities in ISS Commercialization

Examining Realities in ISS Commercialization

The successful Commercial Crew launch of Resilience that SpaceX conducted yesterday was surrounded by the typical, if hard-won and deserved, praise for the company. There was also praise for NASA’s programs that helped make SpaceX’s launch a reality. Simultaneously, people noted that SpaceX’s competitor, Boeing, talked a brave game, but the company’s game currently seems untethered to reality. This is because Boeing, far from leading, is playing catch-up. It still needs to conduct another demonstration of its capsule before it’s tested with humans inside.

The Ride to the ISS Is Still Expensive (for Individuals)

That fumbling noted, when Boeing does finish with its critical capsule tests successfully (I am assuming it will), then NASA will certify Boeing’s Starliner capsule as well. It will have two companies and rockets to convey its astronauts and other passengers to the International Space Station (ISS).

This rocket fleet for transporting humans is a capability NASA has never had access to before. But the increase in ability only means to NASA that there will be more launches to the ISS using U.S. rockets--and that’s it. At least that’s what NASA’s current mission statement for the Commercial Crew Program appears to mean:

“NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) was formed to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit.”

Such single-minded focus seems a shame, considering the possibilities offered by having two spacecraft able to traverse space safely. That they are cheaper to operate, probably with better inherent safety and reliability than NASA’s homegrown Space Launch System and Orion capsule, is just icing on the cake.

I hope NASA comes to its senses with its capability, eventually using Crew Dragon and Starliner for more than a taxi service to the ISS. NASA, astronauts sponsored by other nations, and maybe even the Department of Defense could become mainstays for the service. They are the only ones with the budgets to afford it regularly.

Associated with the Crew Dragon’s successful launch are the various remarks and articles regarding the human spaceflight market’s commercial opportunities. I’ve analyzed this “market” and its realities a few times, including “Human Spaceflight, Its Future under NASA, and the Moon,” and “Flying Humans to Space, for Fun, Science, and Profit.” Those analyses indicate that a few individuals can and will pony up the $50-60 million for a ride to the ISS. But perhaps there aren’t enough of them to make it a core service for either Boeing or SpaceX.

However, SpaceX is changing that equation a little bit. The company revealed earlier this year that a Falcon 9 launch only costs SpaceX $28 million, “...and that’s with everything.” It may even be before reuse. Since the company uses the same first and second stages and the occasional "flight-proven" Crew Dragon, it may be that human spaceflight missions with SpaceX would not cost the company much more than that. What SpaceX could charge a passenger may be less than $50 million.

But why do that if SpaceX is one of two companies to offer this service? I expect Boeing to charge much more than $50 million (it’s already charging NASA $90 million per astronaut). SpaceX only has to charge less than Boeing to compete, which means there’s plenty of wiggle room for the company to adjust pricing. Still, if the price for a flight of one person remains in the tens of millions or even single-digit millions of dollars, the commercial market for the service is very limited.

Does the Math Make Sense?

More limited than the imaginary commercial human spaceflight market would be the fictional market seeking ISS (or other space station) guests. The Crew Dragon launch has opened the gates for several groups interested in the commercial space station guest idea. These groups are prone to espousing inevitable overly-optimistic, and silly statements. In a The Seattle Times article, people are talking about the possibility of making billions of dollars from this “market.” Let’s do some math to see if that can happen...even when pricing Crew Dragon and Starliner at $58 million per ride to the ISS.

The numbers I’m using are from Wikipedia (because it’s convenient).

Over the 20 years of the ISS’ operational life, 240 people in total have been on board. That adds up to 12 people a year, not counting the extra ISS missions a few of those people have accomplished. Of those 240 people, eight were tourists. Those two numbers indicate that ~3% of all people sent to the ISS during the past 20 years were tourists. That’s not many tourists. Perhaps the argument could be made that tourist costs before Crew Dragon and Starliner were ridiculously prohibitive, instead of just prohibitive. But as you’ll see, that may not be true.

According to that same The Seattle Times article, NASA’s cost to run the U.S. part of the ISS ranges from $3 - $4 billion annually.

Before continuing, let’s recognize NASA for its renowned expertise in space engineering and science. Let’s also recognize that it is not known, at all, for its business acumen and market development, which is why these NASA numbers may not be an excellent guide for identifying a burgeoning market—continuing on.

NASA estimated a $58 million ticket to ride to the ISS, and then, upon reaching the ISS, the tourist would pay $35,000/day to experience prolonged micro-gravity sickness. One person in that article suggested the estimated prices could help offset the annual costs of running the ISS. At least, based on the less than yearly rate and a low number of tourists who have visited the ISS so far, I would suggest that those prices barely make a dent.

Optimistically, if one tourist stayed on the ISS for a year (365 days--longer than any tourist stay so far), that tourist would have only paid ~$13 million. That is less than half of one percent of the lower end, $3 billion, that NASA is paying to run its part of the ISS. Adding in the cost of flying to the ISS--$58 million--to the $13 million comes to $71 million--not quite 2.5% of the $3 billion. Still not that much of an offset. But, wouldn’t some of that $58 million be used to pay for transportation services and not ISS costs?

Just for fun, if all 240 ISS visitors paid $35,000/day for one year, how much would they pay in aggregate? My handy-dandy calculator gives me a total of $3.07 billion or about a single annual budget allocation to run the ISS’s American side. About 240 people would need to stay on the ISS at $35,000 per day for a year to cover all annual ISS operations and maintenance costs. Based on the fact that only 240 people have visited the ISS during its 20 years and the ISS is smaller on the inside, then the idea of getting that many people to visit and stay at the ISS for that long is laughable.

Commercial Quandary

Do these calculations make sense? If they do, it shows that, at least based on NASA’s estimates, commercial companies interested in this part of the space tourism business may face some formidable challenges. Increasing the potential customer-base from the current level of three percent is necessary--step one--for this market to grow to the billions the companies in this sector publicize.

But this seems complicated, as NASA’s ISS ticketing and overnight pricing estimates are much higher than what tourists have paid before--averaging around $20 million per person. An estimated 191% increase shouldn’t lure more people into paying for a ride to the ISS. The most significant part of this increase appears to be for the rocket ride--in spite of the fact it costs SpaceX significantly less to launch a Falcon 9.

The other part, though, appears to be how much it costs to operate and maintain the ISS. Note that the U.S. is only paying PART of the entire annual costs. Commercial companies need to decrease those by “an order of magnitude” (in the words of Elon Musk). Three to four billion dollars per year to operate what essentially would be an orbital hotel with a **usually** unoccupied room for one or two people is too much, especially for a stay on a “flying” facility that may be less safe than the Hindenberg.

However, NASA has been known to significantly overestimate commercial companies’ costs to develop and manufacture technologies, like rockets. The space agency relies on what it knows and what it’s experienced--in this case, building a space station over 20 years ago using the processes and primes of that time. Those were very expensive back then, with the same primes keeping up the venerable tradition of pushing premium pricing today.

While there are a few cheerleaders for this type of space tourism, the numbers, at least as estimated by NASA, don’t appear to support that optimism. But there are a few commercial companies pursuing it anyway, so perhaps those costs could change.