Three-Day Shipping To The International Space Station Isn’t Cheap

Falcon 9 during SpaceX Starlink launch

The folks aboard the International Space Station (ISS) don’t get all the free shipping perks we get here back on Earth. Tomorrow, SpaceX will launch its 19th resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Inside the Dragon spacecraft is a couple of tons of supplies and equipment that will keep the ISS going and support dozens of more than 250 experiments that astronauts will conduct on Expeditions 61 and 62.

Wednesday’s SpaceX launch is set for 12:51 pm EST. The Dragon spacecraft will meet up with the ISS on Saturday morning.

So what kind of price tag comes with shipping stuff 254 miles above Earth? Under the current CRS-1 contract, the average cost per flight is $191.3 million. A 2018 report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General shows the average price per kg is estimated at $63,200. One kg is 2.2 pounds for all of us in the U.S. That’s about $28,700 per pound.

Tomorrow’s launch will run cheaper. SpaceX flights under the CRS-1 contract are $152.1 million per flight. Orbital ATK’s $262.6 million per flight pushes the average cost to just over $191.3 million. But SpaceX’s price advantage will soon go away as its prices per flight will see a 50% bump starting in 2020 when the CRS-2 contract takes effect.

What’s going up to the ISS on Wednesday

More than 5,700 pounds worth of supplies will lift off from Cape Canaveral tomorrow. And the Dragon spacecraft resting atop the Falcon 9 rocket will be making its third trip to the ISS after visiting twice before in September 2014 and June 2017.

NASA recently highlighted several of the scientific investigations hitching a ride aboard the Dragon spacecraft tomorrow.

Confined Combustion experiment plays with fire. From NASA: “The Confined Combustion investigation examines the behavior of flame as it spreads in differently-shaped confined spaces in microgravity. More specifically, it will look at the interactions between spreading flames and surrounding walls. The spread of flames in confined spaces (such as buildings and vehicles) may pose a more serious fire hazard than flame spread in open spaces because of acceleration caused by heat radiating back from the surrounding walls.”

40 mice will explore a new method for preventing bone and muscle loss. Aging, sedentary lifestyle, and illness can all cause bone and muscle loss. Roden Research-19 (RR-19) focuses on myostatin (MSTN) and activin, and how they influence muscle loss. The results of this research could give scientists new ways to help astronauts prevent and recover from muscle and bone loss during spaceflight, and help create medicines back on Earth to treat conditions that similar loss.

New upgrades for the Cold Atom Laboratory. The microgravity aboard the ISS is the perfect environment to study atoms and their fundamental behaviors. And the Cold Atom Laboratory lives up to its ‘Cold’ name. Clouds of atoms are chilled to just one ten-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. These cold temperatures mean the atoms have almost zero motion, and lets researchers study their fundamental behaviors. Tomorrow, new hardware will head to the ISS letting scientists make precise measurements of gravity.

NASA put together a short video showcasing a couple of more experiments. Check it out below.

NASA has ISS supply missions scheduled through 2024

I mentioned above about how SpaceX’s costs will soon increase. NASA awarded a second round of cargo supply contracts to three companies: Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX.

A NASA Office of Inspector General report last year touched on why SpaceX is increasing their launch prices by 50% per kg. One reason is a redesign of the Dragon spacecraft’s interior to increase cargo volume by 30%. More from the report:

“They also indicated that their CRS-2 pricing reflected a better understanding of the costs involved after several years of experience with cargo resupply missions. Further, they said their proposed prices took into account the uncertainty at the time of providing fixed per-mission pricing without knowing whether NASA wanted them to fly the Dragon 1 or Dragon 2, which would require keeping open two production lines. Other factors, such as the new requirement for contractors to carry up to $100 million worth of insurance per flight and reduced discounts due to fewer missions flown contributed to SpaceX’s increased CRS-2 pricing.”

For resupply missions starting next year, the average price is projected to be $71,800 per kg.

The weather for tomorrow’s launch is looking good. And it wouldn’t be a SpaceX launch without the first stage coming back to Earth. The ship Of Course I Still Love You will be positioned downrange for the first stage’s landing attempt.


Featured image: Falcon 9 during recent Starlink launch. Credit: SpaceX

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