In a report estimating the hypothetical cost of SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle for a government agency, NASA looked at it from two angles: the agency's traditional approach, and a "more commercial" one. Guess what won?
The government agency pegged the cost of building the heavy lifter at around $3.98 billion. We're used to hearing about space projects costing billions, but maybe this will put it in perspective: a "more commercial development culture approach" that cuts up all the red tape turned up a figure of $1.7 billion, well less than half.
To compile the report, NASA reached out to SpaceX and visited the company's facilities, spoke with its employees, and so on. The agency found that SpaceX had a leg up in a lot of different ways. For every dollar SpaceX sends "out of the company," for instance — say, to contractors — the actual cost to the company is $3 to $5. NASA sends a lot of dollars out, and not just in terms of constructing spacecraft.
The real Falcon 9 has had two successful test launches to date. It's estimated that it will cost $50 million for each trip to orbit. For NASA? Well, it wasn't a rocket, but each Space Shuttle lauch cost $450 million.
One takeaway we can all be happy with: it's clear that it's time for a new direction, and it's clear that NASA is taking a hard look at itself with a mind to improve. Either way, this is a clear win for private spaceflight, and hopefully the lessons will hone NASA's approach as it prepares to push out into deeper space.
You can read the report yourself, link below. It's only nine slides long and it's surprisingly readable.