Useful answers – the cost of NASA spacecraft

It’s spaceships aplenty – and it’s all good.

Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of public data out there for what NASA spacecraft cost. Yet judging by regular NASA Inspector General or GAO reviews, this is all beyond obscure and confusing. There’s even a thought from NASA that not knowing what things cost saves money. (That is not a typo.) A lot of confusion is near the margins. In the cost estimating circles I once inhabited, we often said, “a billion here, a billion there, before you know it, you have real money.” This was so for cost uncertainties too, putting aside totals anyone showed the patience (or courage) to add up.

NASA Spacecraft procurement development costs (a portion of total costs). The NASA commercial cargo Cygnus and Dragon, and the NASA commercial crew Dragon, now also for cargo (“Dragon 2.0”), all completed development. These totals are unlikely to change much with new information. The NASA commercial crew and cargo Dragon is also the Dragon available on a commercial basis to others, as in the recent Inspiration4 and Axiom-1 crewed missions. Notably, procurement costs are about 85% to 95% of total costs to NASA. The NASA commercial cargo Starliner is slated to fly its first demonstration flight in 2022, completing development soon after with a first crewed flight. The NASA Orion crew spacecraft is slated to complete development with a first crewed flight in 2024. Credit: Edgar Zapata,
NASA spacecraft procurement per unit to space costs (a portion of total costs). This excludes (by estimating) the associated launcher cost, showing ONLY the spacecraft. For commercial spacecraft, this is the spacecraft cost put in space, the complete cost to orbit, as these are contracted as a service. For non-commercial spacecraft, the older Apollo data, or the ongoing Orion, these costs are only through a delivered production unit, excluding further preparation at the launch site through launch. Notably, procurement costs are about 85% to 95% of total costs to NASA. Also, for Orion (unlike Apollo), it is only half of the spacecraft, as the service module half is provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). Credit: Edgar Zapata,

It is a telling moment in estimating costs for big aerospace projects that the first words of an instructor in my first training class about cost estimating in NASA dove into not knowing what things cost. “There are two reasons projects won’t advertise their costs. One, they are too embarrassed to admit they have no idea. Two, they do know and are too embarrassed to tell anyone.” The entertainment made the few days in training fly by. Who knew something as dull as some accounting lent itself to so many quips? If Twitter existed back then, I would have streamed the jokes in real-time and been trending.

For one, there are NASA budget documents. Not the proposed ones. Those funds may not get approved. But usually, about a year (maybe two) after any year, NASA will document what actually got spent. It’s not a bad assumption to assume the funds approved get spent. Of course, it’s easy to whip out the details. Are all the funds used up already, even a year later? (Believe it or not, the answer may be no. It’s called “carry-over.” Think, money in a bucket with a label, but the bill has not yet arrived. And there are different names for how close the bill is to arriving.) Most simply, what matters is the budget says “Orion” or “Commercial Crew.” So, it’s more than fair, it would seem, to add it all up under the names legally and explicitly funded by Congress. Who got the funds? This simple reckoning might even be helpful – who got what funds a pretty good reflection of the cost of what they did.

That is until you are in a meeting and there’s pushback. The documents say “Project X.” I added up all those documents Project X dollars since it began, and this is the number. Nope, not quite, someone said – a true story. “Project X paid for many things,” she says, “that really are not Project X.” Unweaving this one, I am reminded of a joke befitting that training class, the one about sad Joe at the Department of Agriculture. He’s all in tears, distraught, suffering an existential crisis to make Nietzsche proud. What happened? His farmer died.

That is no true Scotsman!”

Without skipping a beat, there comes a school of thought that adding up budgets under a project’s name does not come anywhere near “true” costs. When this challenge arises, an alternative I propose runs along the line of asking, “does Congress know that someone else got that money assigned to Project X?” “Does the IG know?” (/s, with change in tone of voice.) A quick change of topic always follows. Yet the tension between the simple notion of all budgets as the costs of a project and true costs won’t die, predictably resurfacing in audits. “That is no true Scotsman!” says the project. When asked to parse out “true” costs versus other costs, no one wants to calculate what happens if their farmer dies.

Another view on NASA project costs is to look at contracts, even if the word “contracts” exudes more pedantic complexity. NASA is very forthright about contracts, if not doing the homework for you of adding and parsing. An excellent public source to make NASA contract announcements take on life is But NASA has many costs, well beyond the big “primes” and “partners” (the former the old lingo, the latter the new.) This means adding up any contracts will always be less than adding up budgets. Yet again, it’s not over-simplifying to remember NASA puts about 85 to 90 cents of every budget dollar on contracts. The difference between budgets and contracts – usually somewhat predictable, the other 15 cents. (The real difficulty is the 30 cents still missing, sub-contracts lower down, a topic for another day.)

Comparing NASA budget data, across, to NASA contract data, down, is as fun as a crossword. No really!

If crossword puzzles or Wordle are not your thing, now try getting the NASA budgets (“Does as told,” 5 letters, across) to meet up with the NASA contracts, announcements, and Govtribe (“Wise one,” 4 letters, down.) It’s as entertaining as that three-day class on cost estimating back in the aughts. Of course, when it doesn’t add up, you realize the word going across is something else. Ahh, the joy when it all comes together. Well, if it’s your thing.

(It’s never reached the nuance of an RPG, yet.)

We whip out the 3D chessboard to take this to the next level. (It’s never reached the nuance of an RPG, yet.) Historically, programs will draw a sharp line at their first flight and say, “here there be operations, from here forward.” This is incorrect but good enough. For example, the Space Shuttle spent billions on a steady stream of “upgrades” throughout its lifetime. These ongoing but one-time costs (the private sector might say “capital expenditures”) are easily parsed or thrown in as necessary expenses required to fly. And so, these are more operational per flight costs.

Attaching the corners to the next level of the 3D chessboard, we have to ask – who got what funding? Was it Boeing or SpaceX? Did they also invest their own funds, which arguably reflect the costs of getting to an outcome, a flying, operational piece of hardware? These pieces of this puzzle are also available publicly. (Page 95 here, for example.) But now you must match the one long word across, with the 3 already going down. These pieces fall quickly in line, if only because what costs are not in bucket A must be B.

The future promises more spacecraft to come, even as NASA has spacecraft options aplenty now as it has never had before. Even with a trained eye, answers about the cost of NASA projects may not always be absolutely correct, but they can be absolutely consistent. These answers may even be helpful.

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