NASA has given SpaceX $381 million to develop a private rocket to replace the space shuttle -- and that’s just the tip of the money iceberg.
The space agency spent $50 million in 2009 to help foster a commercial space industry in America, essentially a down payment on the country’s post shuttle future, and it handed out another $270 million in April of 2011. NASA plans multiple future grants ranging up to half a billion in the next year and a half -- an investment that will result in the creation of the U.S. space industry and will save NASA hundreds of millions on future space flights.
But is the estimated $4.9 billion the program will cost worth it?
A May 10 report by the House Appropriations Committee cited a litany of concerns with the Commercial Crew Program, concluding that the that the overall $4.9 billion in estimated development costs with which the government is seeding private space firms is simply too much money.
As the House report noted, “there is a risk of repeating the government’s experience from last year’s bankruptcy of the solar energy firm Solyndra, in which the failure of a high risk, government subsidized development venture left taxpayers with no tangible benefit.”
On the other hand, if the company succeeds, the government won’t own a piece of the resulting business, as it did after the bailout of Chrysler or GM. The money is essentially a payment to do a job -- in this case, build rockets and spaceships capable of taking crew and cargo off-planet.
“The government needs technology, and they are paying companies to develop that tech,” explained Kirstin Brost Grantham, a spokeswoman for SpaceX.
The main payoff for Americans: dramatic savings on future trips into space.
NASA currently pays Russia more than $60 million per seat to send astronauts into space. Companies like SpaceX offer a far cheaper (and home-grown) alternative.
"The next American-flagged vehicle to carry our astronauts into space is going to be a U.S. commercial provider," said Ed Mango, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager. "The partnerships NASA is forming with industry will support the development of multiple American systems capable of providing future access to low-Earth orbit."
Following the 2009 investments, NASA poured money in earnest into the program. Much of it was pledged in round 2 of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDEV2) program, announced in April 2011:
SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., has alone received $381 million to date, though it could receive an addition $15 million for meeting key milestones in the race to build a replacement spacecraft. In round 2, the company received $75 million for a variety of programs, including the Dragon capsule that could someday carry men into space and the Falcon rockets that can carry cargo or the capsule.
Blue Origin, of Kent, Wash., received $22 million in 2011 for its work on spaceflight vehicle design. The secretive company, backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos only recently revealed details of its plans to build a conical spaceship to transport cargo and crew.
Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Col., received $80 million towards the Dream Chaser -- which looks like a miniature space shuttle. It's a design is based on a NASA concept vehicle first drawn up in the early 1980s.
And Boeing of Houston, Tex. -- whose team includes space hotel builder Bigelow Aerospace -- received $92.3 million for a variety of items. Bigelow plans a space tourism industry around its modular orbiting hotels; Boeing has a lengthy history building rockets.
Other companies received funding in the 2009 round of financing.
Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., was awarded up to $1.4 million to develop an environmental control and life support unit.
And United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Col., was awarded up to $6.7 million to develop a monitoring system for its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, to provide the earliest warning of impending catastrophic rocket failures.
The next round of funding includes hundreds of millions under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program, in which NASA anticipates multiple companies receiving funding ranging from $300 million to as much as half a billion.
Congress recommended $1.2 billion towards the program in fiscal year 2012 and $1 billion in fiscal year 2013.
SpaceX has won support from NASA and a wide variety of commercial customers because we are providing the best proposals, because we have a demonstrated track record of success,” Grantham told FoxNews.com.
“I think our success speaks for itself."