Friday July 26, 2013 | 11:20 AM

Yesterday, Press Herald reporter Gillian Graham had a chance to conduct a 10-minute interview with two astronauts aboard the International Space Station. This interview was quite valuable, as you'll soon see. I've embedded it at the end of this post.

In the clip, astronauts Chris Cassidy of Maine and Karen Nyberg talk a bit about the work they do aboard the ISS. They're basically employees of NASA, hired to do science and maintenance work on the space station. And watching it got me wondering: what's the labor cost to NASA to get an hour's worth of an astronaut's work?

Here's my back-of-the-envelope calculation. NASA just announced an extension of its contract with the Russian space agency to carry six astronauts to the ISS for $424 million. That price includes training and emergency rescue services in case something goes wrong.

That's just the cost of the commute. Compared to this, the astronauts' actual wages and benefits won't amount to more than a rounding errors, so I'm going to just gloss those over and use this figure as NASA's total labor cost.

Each crew of six stays in space for around 24 weeks. Together, they provide NASA with around 160 hours of work per week, according to Wikipedia. So $424 million pays for 160 x 24 total hours of work over the course of an ISS expedition.

That works out to a labor cost to NASA of around $110,000 an hour — plus a little extra for the astronauts' actual wages and benefits. Which is expensive, but still cheaper than hiring a big corporate CEO. A caveat: some missions are longer that others, and that can change the figures significantly — NASA gets more work for the price of the same rocket trip if the astronauts stay up there longer.

By extension, that 10-minute interview we did with two ISS astronauts would have cost about $38,800 to NASA (1/6th of the hourly rate, times two). So, with that in mind, please watch this to the fullest and get your money's worth:


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I'm an economics wonk and an online content producer for the Portland Press Herald.

You can get in touch with me by emailing cmilneil [at], or by calling 791-6307, or by following @vigorousnorth. Also check out my business and economics list on Twitter.

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