A comparison of what it cost Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. (SpaceX) to develop the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and the estimate of what it would cost NASA to do the same job, offers hope that NASA can focus on deep-space exploration and leave flights to low Earth orbit (LEO) to the private sector, according to a member of the outside panel that reviewed U.S. human spaceflight plans for President Barack Obama.

Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton University, who played a key role in the 2009 deliberations of the panel headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, told the Senate Commerce Committee May 18 that the agency’s confirmation of SpaceX costs are “encouraging about the future.”

Chyba, who counseled against NASA trying to operate spaceflight vehicles and developing new ones simultaneously as a member of the Augustine panel subcommittee on exploration beyond low Earth orbit, said the SpaceX experience developing a launch vehicle that has successfully orbited its Dragon capsule for a splashdown recovery bodes well for NASA’s plan to turn over cargo and crew transport to the International Space Station (ISS) to commercial operators.

He cited an analysis contained in NASA’s report to Congress on the market for commercial crew and cargo services to LEO that found it would cost NASA between $1.7 billion and $4 billion to do the same job with Falcon 9 that cost SpaceX $390 million. In its analysis, which contained no cost estimates for the future cost of commercial transportation services to the ISS beyond those already under contract, NASA said it had verified the SpaceX cost figures.

For comparison, agency experts used the NASA-Air Force Cost Model – “a parametric cost estimating tool with a historical database of over 130 NASA and Air Force spaceflight hardware projects” – to generate estimates of what it would cost the civil space agency to match the SpaceX accomplishment. Using the “traditional NASA approach,” the agency analysts found the cost would be $4 billion. That would drop to $1.7 billion with different assumptions representative of “a more commercial development approach,” NASA said.

“If that difference is real, that’s encouraging about the future,” Chyba testified. “It would be good to learn as much as one can from that about how to do things differently in the future. It may mean that, alternately although not in the near term, the commercial sector could play a much more ambitious role.”

Chyba repeated his 2009 warning that NASA has not been able to develop one vehicle and fly another at the same time, given historic budget constraints. But he said NASA may be able to learn from SpaceX as it develops the heavy-lift launch vehicle Congress has ordered it to build for missions beyond LEO.

“The other thing that I think one would want to understand in some detail would be why would it be between four and 10 times more expensive for NASA to do this, especially at a time when one of the issues facing NASA now is how to develop the heavy-lift launch vehicle within the budget profile that the committee has given it,” Chyba said.