When President George W. Bush first proposed commercializing Earth to low Earth orbit transportation in the wake of the Columbia accident, the initiative was thought to be radical, albeit one that cheered commercial space advocates. When President Obama doubled down on the concept, eliminating NASA’s direct role in low Earth orbit transportation, cries of outrage could be heard from Congress. To be fair, most of the anger from Obama’s initiative resulted from his cancellation of the Constellation program, which many thought to be high-handed and politically motivated.

The argument, at the time, was that commercializing transportation of cargo and then people to and from low Earth orbit would save NASA money that could then be spent on other items. Has that promise been borne out? A recent study by Edgar Zapata at the Kennedy Space Center suggests that it has.

Commercial is cheaper where it comes to space travel

Zapata’s study suggests that the cost of transporting a kilogram of cargo on the SpaceX Dragon is $89,000. The study goes on to say that if NASA had built its own cargo ship using traditional government procurement methods, the cost would have been $272,000 per kilogram.

Moreover, the study estimates the cost of sending four astronauts to the International Space Station on the SpaceX crewed dragon to be $405 million and on the Boeing Starliner to be $654 million.

That cost is between 37 and 39 percent of what it would have cost the government to perform the same task.

The government has made back its investment in COTS

The Zapata study estimates that the government has already made back its investment in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program that is sending cargo to and from the ISS.

The reasoning is that COTS helped to make SpaceX a viable, global space launch company that is now servicing a variety of commercial customers. The taxation on SpaceX employee salaries and suppliers has proven to be a net plus for the national treasury.

Hence, the Zapata study is as profound as the 1970s era Chase Econometric study that demonstrated that the Apollo moon landings were a net plus for the federal government, due to economic stimulus and technological spinoffs.

It provides evidence that commercializing space travel can be a net benefit for NASA and the federal government.

Implications for the future

The Zapata study also suggests that President Obama botched an opportunity in 2010 when he canceled the Constellation program. He might have initiated a Deep Space Exploration COTS program to mount expeditions to the moon and Mars using commercially acquired vehicles. Instead, he canceled deep space exploration entirely and then, under congressional pressure, started the vaguely defined and underfunded Journey to Mars program. Filling this leadership vacuum Congress mandated the development of the Orion deep spacecraft and the heavy-lift Space Launch System that many critics have suggested are too expensive.

The Trump administration, in surveying the wreckage of NASA’s deep space exploration program, has to note that if it wants to return to the lunar surface, it needs to develop a lander as well as commercial alternatives to getting from the Earth to the moon. It has to note that commercial is the way to go if the next footsteps are to be planted in the lunar soil anytime soon.