Even in failure, it is important to remember what the private sector has achieved in space exploration.
The Space Shuttle program massively overran expected costs. After NASA grounded the shuttle fleet in 2011, an investigation showed that the costs ran to $1.5 billion per flight (when taking into account lifetime program costs). This is part of the reason why NASA has outsourced to the private sector the ferrying of cargo, and eventually of astronauts,.
Both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have proven capable of ferrying supplies to the International Space Station at a fraction of the cost of the shuttle. The cost savings have allowed NASA to order 12 resupply missions from SpaceX for $1.6 billion, and eight from Orbital Sciences for $1.9 billion. The contracts that NASA has awarded for manned missions also cost significantly less then the overall shuttle program. The awards of $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion to Boeing and SpaceX include development, testing, and from two to six manned missions.
These savings allow NASA to pursue its own heavy-lift rockets and manned capsules for deep-space exploration. By spinning off part of its mandate to the private sector, it can focus on other core pursuits in an era of tight budgets.
The Department of Defense should be paying attention. It too is facing tight budgets, but reliance on its own space infrastructure will not grow any less significant. Placing its multibillion-dollar satellites in orbit costs the department hundreds of millions of dollars per launch. Of course, with such high stakes, a successful launch is paramount. The Atlas and Delta rockets employed have an impressive track record – and the costs to go with it.
Given SpaceX’s several mishaps, perhaps the time is not quite right to be committing national security to private launches. However, launching a Falcon 9 costs SpaceX $61.2 million dollars and estimates for Orbital Sciences’ Antares-Cygnus launch are around $237 million (given their NASA contract), both of these being cheaper than the shuttle. If these companies survive the technical challenges and perfect their launches, the Department of Defense will have alternative, cheaper options for launching its needed space assets into orbit. Our satellite constellations are key for American defense strategy, and and it will benefit national security to be more cost-effective.