Taxpayers lost $110 million when a SpaceX rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station disintegrated shortly after liftoff last month, a NASA official said at a Friday hearing.
"That's gone," William Gerstenmaier, a NASA associate administrator, said of the cargo lost when the SpaceX rocket failed June 28 far above Florida's coast.
But that loss is just the beginning. NASA will also pay Hawthorne-based SpaceX all but 20% of the fee it was scheduled to receive for the mission.
A NASA spokeswoman said the agency does not reveal specific fees it pays to contractors. SpaceX has a $1.6-billion contract to fly 12 cargo missions to the space station — details that suggest an estimated payment of more than $100 million for a successful trip.
NASA similarly paid most of the cargo fee to another launch provider, Orbital Sciences, after its unmanned rocket loaded with space station provisions exploded just seconds after liftoff Oct. 28.
SpaceX, which was founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, is leading the investigation into what caused the rocket to break apart, destroying two tons of food, equipment and experiments.
Gerstenmaier said that SpaceX would use what it found in its investigation to make changes to the spacecraft it is building to shuttle astronauts to the station. Those trips with humans could begin as soon as 2017.
The NASA executive said it was far better to be investigating an accident involving cargo.
"It's excellent to learn on cargo," he said at the hearing. "We definitely don't want to learn on crew."
On Friday, some members of the House subcommittee on space questioned whether SpaceX should be investigating its own failure.
Gerstenmaier explained that NASA, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, are also involved in the probe. The government members have the authority to question SpaceX's findings, he said.
At the hearing, Paul Martin, NASA's inspector general, said that his office was looking into whether the agency's private contractors should be leading investigations into their own accidents.
A similar corporate-led investigation is continuing into the destruction of Orbital Sciences' rocket more than eight months ago.
SpaceX and Orbital are part of NASA's plan to hire private contractors to carry cargo and astronauts to low-Earth orbit while the agency focuses on more distant space exploration, including eventually taking humans to Mars.
Gerstenmaier told the panel that after the loss of the two rockets, NASA is considering whether to require the companies to take out insurance to cover cargo losses now borne by taxpayers.
The June 28 launch would have been Hawthorne-based SpaceX's seventh cargo mission.
Before the failure, the company's Falcon 9 rocket had flown successfully 18 times, including to launch satellites for commercial customers. The upstart company had shaken the global launch industry by showing it could reliably fly rockets at a fraction of the price charged by other providers.
The SpaceX failure comes as NASA is trying to win congressional approval to operate the space station through 2024 — four years longer than lawmakers have authorized.
Over the last two decades, taxpayers have spent tens of billions of dollars to develop, assemble and operate the space station.
NASA plans to spend $22 billion more from 2016 to 2020 on space station operations, according to the Government Accountability Office. More than half of that amount will go to pay SpaceX, Orbital and other contractors to transport cargo — and soon astronauts — to the space station, the GAO said.
NASA currently pays the Russian government $76 million for each seat to fly astronauts to the space station, Gerstenmaier said Friday. The agency estimates the cost will fall to $58 million for each seat on the spacecraft operated by SpaceX and Boeing, which also won a NASA contract to shuttle astronauts.
Even before the SpaceX failure, NASA was struggling to keep up with its schedule of research planned to be performed onboard the space station. A crucial part of that work is aimed at learning more about how living in space can physically harm humans — knowledge needed for the planned trip to Mars.
In January, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said that repeated launch delays by SpaceX and Orbital had forced experiments to be put on hold. The panel said that the companies "must significantly improve" their performance "to enable consistent scientific research" aboard the space station.
Both companies' spacecraft are now grounded as the investigations continue.
Gerstenmaier said Friday that astronauts onboard the space station have enough food, water and other provisions for the next several months.
Last week, a Russian cargo ship successfully docked with the station, easing some worries about the adequacy of the crews' supplies.
NASA plans to fly more cargo to the station Aug. 16, when a Japanese ship is scheduled to launch.