NASA might ease its “delicate position” by following the cost-cutting approaches used by Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) in developing the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, a key member of the panel that reviewed U.S. human spaceflight plans for President Barack Obama is telling Congress.

Administrator Charles Bolden apparently agrees, saying that the SpaceX approach to management is “disruptive technology” that can bring “great gains” to the space program.

“They don't spread things all over the country the way that NASA and defense contractors tend to do,” Bolden told the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on May 19. “They're very focused in two locations in the country. They bring everything in-house. They have no subcontractors, so everything comes to them. That's disruptive.”

As NASA struggles to restructure itself with the government in a cost-cutting mood, agency analysts have put some numbers behind Bolden's view, notes Christopher F. Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton University. Chyba played a key role in the 2009 deliberations of the panel headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee on May 18, Chyba repeated his 2009 warning that NASA has never been able to develop one vehicle and fly another at the same time, and is unlikely to be able to do so today (AW&ST Aug. 3, 2009, p. 28). But he says NASA may be able to learn from SpaceX as the agency develops the heavy-lift launch vehicle Congress has ordered it to build for missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

“I think one would want to understand in some detail . . . 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 is how to develop the heavy-lift launch vehicle within the budget profile that the committee has given it,” Chyba says.

He cites 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 Falcon-9 development that cost SpaceX $390 million. In its analysis, which contained no estimates for the future cost of commercial transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS) beyond those already under contract, NASA says it had “verified” those 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 says.

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

The Obama administration used the Augustine panel's report as justification for its proposal to abandon the Constellation program in favor of an open-ended effort to develop technology for deep-space missions, and rely on commercial cargo and crew vehicles to keep the ISS operating at least until 2020.

That approach, contained in the agency's fiscal 2011 budget request, ran into heavy fire on Capitol Hill, in large part because of the dramatic impact on space employment of terminating the space shuttle program without another launch vehicle in sight. Congress modified the administration's approach in a three-year NASA reauthorization that Obama signed last December, adding the government-built heavy-lift rocket and a government crew capsule for deep-space exploration, while maintaining the commercial route to LEO.

Details of that approach are being worked out in the fiscal 2011 operations plan that NASA and White House officials are developing to submit to Congress soon, amid congressional complaints that the agency is moving too slowly on the heavy lifter.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. are forging ahead with vehicles to deliver cargo to the ISS commercially, and the agency is backing development of four commercial crew vehicles for LEO missions (AW&ST April 25/May 2, p. 24).