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News in a Number: The Business of Launching Astronauts

David Street
2 min read
May 29, 2020

$31 million

Savings per astronaut when NASA launches with SpaceX instead of the Russian space agency

NASA and SpaceX will try again tomorrow to launch two American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This would be the first time astronauts take off from US soil since 2011.

Made in America is a strong argument to buy from SpaceX. But it’s not the only argument SpaceX is making. They are also promising to lower the cost of getting to space. A 2019 NASA audit provided details that made it easier to compare costs.

SpaceX’s services came out to a price of around $55 million per launched astronaut. NASA has recently been paying Russia around $86 million per astronaut. It should be noted that in 2007, NASA paid $21 million for that same service. But then NASA retired the Space Shuttle, giving Russia’s Soyuz vehicle a monopoly on launching astronauts to the ISS. Prices then did what prices do in a monopoly.

A very rough calculation from 2009 data shows that NASA spent about $90 million that year for each astronaut sent up on the Space Shuttle. This brings up another point: It’s very hard to calculate the exact costs of such things. If you take data from another year, the costs of launching an astronaut on the Space Shuttle will look very different. This sort of calculation also doesn’t include the huge investment it took to get the spaceplane flying in the first place.

NASA Launch
NASA spent over $200 billion on the Space Shuttle across several decades.

The development of space vehicles is long and costly, but these systems are also often used for many purposes. SpaceX uses the Falcon 9 rocket, which will launch astronauts for NASA, for everything from communications satellites to moon landers. In 2019 alone, SpaceX launched 11 payloads to orbit using Falcon 9. In short, it’s a space courier that carries many different packages for many different customers. SpaceX uses that revenue to improve its launch systems, attract more customers, and improve its economies of scale.

Regardless of the exact cost, most agree that SpaceX has succeeded in making one of the most economical launch systems the US, and maybe the world, has ever seen.