The actual cost to launch

In writing this short post on the efforts of Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences to launch rockets for the small satellite market, Clark Lindsey made this comment:

It costs around $50 million to launch a Orbital Sciences Minotaur 4, which can put 1,730 kg into LEO while the Lockheed’s Athena 2 will cost around $65 million to put 1,712 kg into LEO. SpaceX currently posts charges $54M – $59.5M for launching to LEO 10,450 kg (equatorial) and 8,560 kg (polar). If SpaceX is able to sustain these prices in routine operation, it will obviously result in some disturbance to the launch industry.

Let’s deconstruct these numbers again, this time listing them by the cost per kilogram:

  • Orbital Sciences: $28,901 per kilogram on the Minotaur 4 rocket.
  • Lockheed Martin: $37,967 per kilogram on the Athena 2 rocket.
  • SpaceX: $5,694 per kilogram on the Falcon 9 rocket to go to an equatorial orbit.
  • SpaceX: $6,951 per kilogram on the Falcon 9 rocket to go to a polar orbit.

For SpaceX, I have used their higher price, $59.5 million, to get my figures above.

As Clark notes, “If SpaceX is able to sustain these prices in routine operation, it will obviously result in some disturbance to the launch industry.”

To put it mildly, this is an understatement.

The way I see it, SpaceX’s vastly lower prices suggest two things: Either the rest of the launch industry is incredibly inefficient, or SpaceX is pricing its product too low. Though I suspect the answer is a little of both, I also suspect it is mostly the former. For decades American rocket companies have shown little interest in reducing cost, mostly because their main (and possibly only) customer was the U.S. government. which cared little how much it cost to get payload into space. It is for this reason that, since the 1980s, these rocket companies have lost most of the commercial market to either Russia or Arianespace, both of which are heavily subsidized by their governments and thus appear to be very inefficient themselves in building rockets. Their prices are therefore cheaper, but not by a significant amount.

Elon Musk entered this market precisely because he recognized this reality, and realized that he could easily undercut the prices of everyone else by simply building his rockets efficiently. If the launch of Falcon 9 is successful on April 30, and SpaceX begins normal operations, launching cargo to ISS as well as fulfilling the multi-million dollar launch contracts it has already signed with a number of commercial customers, then the launch industry is going to go through a significant but welcome upheaval. Everyone else is either going to have to cut their prices, or go under. And to cut those prices will require overhauling how these companies do things. Inefficiency will no longer pay off.

Ah, competition. I love it.

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15 comments

  • Joe2

    The Falcon 9 listed payload capacities are roughly an order of magnitude greater than those for the Minotaur 4 and Athena 2 (which are intended for smaller payloads) and the claimed launch cost (for the Falcon 9) are roughly an order of magnitude less.

    Economies of scale?

    Be careful or you will find yourself accidentally making the case for an HLV.

    • libs0n

      1. Diminishing returns. Most of the gains from “bigger = cheaper” is in the transition from Falcon 1 sized rockets to Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. See this simplistic graph and imagine cost per kg of the left side, and vehicle size on the bottom. http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/law-of-diminishing-returns.png

      2. There are other economies of scale:

      a: Mass production. Falcon 9 has more customers including COTS/CRS. This allows SpaceX to make more parts, leverage their investment to just make a single part, and for the cost of parts to go down. Think engines. Each Falcon 9 has 9 first stage engines. If they sell 6 Falcon 9s a year, they’re making 54 a year. If they sell a few heavies, they make even more. If they enlarge their customer base, even more.

      Making a lot of widgets most often lowers the price of widgets compared with making only a handful.

      B: High flight rates. This allows you to spread capital costs, like maintaining a launch site and your flight crew, over a larger number of flights, reducing the overhead costs. If there was only 1 launch a year, that launch supports all costs. 10 launches a year, and that cost is 1/10 per flight.

      C: Reusability. ULA and SpaceX both have plans for evolved reusability, and other firms like Blue Origin have tentative interests in the field. A larger market influences the economic case of reusability. A market that demands 30-60 flights a year makes the business case for reusability better than a market that has 10 or less. There is a reason why the market for space launch the world over is met by expendable vehicles. At the low flight rates we have for space launch demand, expendables are cheaper than RLVs. The small market for space launch is part of what has held back advancements in space access. Adding NASA’s exploration demand to the medium lift market will help expand it to the point where hopefully reusability can take off.

      Segregating NASA’s exploration demand to an HLV worsens the economics for improving the state of space launch.

      3. There is a large external market for medium lift payloads. All of the commercial and defense and other civil payloads market is in the medium lift class.

      Demand influences the economics of space launch. The demand for medium lift vehicles is larger than just the subset of NASA’s hypothetical exploration demand, while for HLVs, the demand consists entirely of NASA’s exploration program ability to generate payloads.

      This also allows NASA to gain leverage over other customer’s expenditures. For instance, the Air Force pays to keep the EELVs in service, and the space science side of NASA gains access to reliable space launch without themselves paying to keep a launch vehicle in service, except a pro-rated portion attached to each launch. When NASA’s exploration demand is low, like it will be for the next few years, and perhaps also at times in the future, other customers like DoD and COTS/CRS and Space Science and comsats help pay the costs of maintaining medium lift space access.

      There is no external market for HLV payloads. NASA must shoulder all HLV launch vehicle costs themselves.

      4. HLV development cost. The medium lift vehicles are more or less ready from the get go, while a large sum must first be spent on creating the HLV. NASA will spend 2 billion a year for the next ten years developing SLS. That is money spent not launching anything. Comparatively, it could purchase a large amount of payload to orbit using the medium lift vehicles. That needed dev cost is a dead weight that counts against it; even if your HLV were to cost less when its built, which I argue throughout this post is not the case, any savings must first make up the money pit that building a HLV was for it truly to have been a better cost proposition.

      That money doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes out of NASA’s available budget, so by allocating monies to HLV development, you have less to allocate to other things. It reduces the scope of NASA’s activities, including BEO HSF. That’s money not spent on a lander or lunar surface systems for instance.

      5. HLV operations costs. SLS requires ~2 billion a year in spending to maintain the program irrespective of launch rate. Comparatively, This cost can purchase a large amount medium lift vehicles. It is a cost that must be shouldered regardless of the actual demand for the vehicle. For example, if NASA pays ten billion in SLS costs between 2020 and 2025, but only launches a low amount of missions because that’s all they can afford, NASA still has to pay high HLV costs, while in lean times they can buy less medium lift vehicles.

      So, medium lift supply better matches actual NASA demand.

      6. Different organization approaches to launch vehicles. Company A can have a different business or product development strategy that results in their product being less expensive.

      Even if Bigger = cheaper was true, it can’t overcome the problem if the HLV vehicle is made by Inefficient Company or Process A and the medium lift vehicle is made by More efficient company or process B.

      HLV enthusiast like to sing the supposed virtues of HLVs, and apply those virtues to the SLS. But they do not often comprehend that incidental implementation of a concept is not the same thing as the concept. ie, a “Bad HLV” detracts from a hypothetical “Good HLV”.

      You use the phrase “some type of HLV” later on. There is no other types of HLV. There is only SLS, which is built out of expensive parts that only NASA uses and makes use of. NASA is also not going to be competing in the international launch market, so saying in theory that HLV could launch several sats at once doesn’t apply to the reality of SLS, where what it will fly is what NASA must pay to develop and fly, and where all commercial demand is in the medium lift range, so that in order to leverage that commercial demand one must also use the medium lift standard.

      7. Ongoing competition. The foundation of the economy is that different firms try different things, and one can be a better way than another. If SpaceX or any other firm can have a more efficient business, or a more effective product strategy than the other guy, then that allows the customer to select them over the other guy. Or stick with the other guy if they can’t.

      NASA buying launch services stimulates a competitive market for its launch demand. Medium lift providors like ULA or SpaceX are exposed to competition, because there are multiple medium lift providers and starting a new medium lift venture is easier than starting a HLV venture.

      By building a HLV, you lose out on this continual competition for payload. You give one set of firms a de facto monopoly.

      8. Vehicle lock in. Time passes, and the state of space launch improves. 20 years ago, the EELVs didn’t exist and neither did SpaceX. But users of medium lift launch vehicles were able to transition to new standards of launch as they arose in the passing of time. The standard of space launch 20 years from now is unknown to us, but by being a buyer of rides to orbit, and not a maker of a launch vehicle, NASA can transition to new standards as they arise, and as their genesis is influenced by NASA’s demand itself.

      If you build the SLS, 20, 30, 40 years from, you’re stuck with the SLS, save minor improvements that may or may not happen. The MLV path is more dynamic than the HLV path, and by building a HLV you are locking yourself in to a single vehicle.

      Surely it is better for the DoD and Space Science that, rather than locking in the Titan 4 20 years ago, they can use the EELVs, and in this coming decade, perhaps SpaceX too if they prove themselves capable of the job and cheaper? Medium lift space launch evolves, and evolves faster.

      ***

      Those are some factors that make “bigger = cheaper” and “SLS = big therefore must be cheaper” a one dimensional and simplistic and fallacious view of the situation. HLV= no mass production, no continual competition and gaining access to the fruits of competition and future systems, no sharing of costs with other users, high price tag to build which represents a blown opportunity cost, mandatory high spending afterwords no matter the demand environment. And bigger = cheaper is overblown.

      • Kelly Starks

        >== Think engines. Each Falcon 9 has 9 first stage engines. If they sell 6 Falcon 9s a year, they’re
        > making 54 a year. ==

        Yeah, but that means they are paying for 9 engines, rather then 1 big one which wouldn’t cost that much ore then eachof the small ones –also the 9 engine cluster lowers the likely reliability of the 9.

        >== High flight rates. This allows you to spread capital costs, like maintaining a launch site
        > and your flight crew, over a larger number of flights, reducing the overhead costs. ==

        Definatly – but SpaceX has no projection of high flight rtaes – even on the scale of launch vehicles.

        >== C: Reusability. ULA and SpaceX both have plans for evolved reusability, ==

        ?? Really not. (Though ULA does intend to bid for the RLV replacement for the EELV’s.) I’ve never heard of any eveolved reusabilityprogram for the EELV’s, and SpaceX has made a couple proposals – none credible.

        >== A market that demands 30-60 flights a year makes the business case for reusability better
        > than a market that has 10 or less. ==

        Your falling into the myth that RLVs are more costly to develop and or operate then expendables? Its a common myth in NewSpace circles, but it has no basis in fact. Historicly the reusables have always been cheaper.

        >== There is a reason why the market for space launch the world over is met by expendable vehicles. ==

        Political and historic yes, not lower cost to develop or operate.

        >== Segregating NASA’s exploration demand to an HLV worsens the economics for improving
        > the state of space launch.

        True, though the higher costs we a plus for NASA.

        > 3. There is a large external market for medium lift payloads. All of the commercial and defense
        > and other civil payloads market is in the medium lift class.

        True –though “large” might be a streach.

        > 4. HLV development cost. The medium lift vehicles are more or less ready from the get go,
        > while a large sum must first be spent on creating the HLV. ==

        Yes, but if you want to do BEO it would take a lot of MLV launches to add up to a single HLV launch. I can’t see us being able to launch say 6-8 Atlas’ or D-4′s close enough together to allow then to work together as one big BEO mission? Much less develop the systems to allow them to be grabbed and integrated into a common Launch craft. So I think either way you need to develop a new craft for BEO – though a good, quick turn around, high flight rate capable, medium RLV would be a much better investment.

        >== That money doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes out of NASA’s available budget, so by
        > allocating monies to HLV development, you have less to allocate to other things. ==

        Thats not how congressional budgets work, though that logic would equally doom CCDev or much of COTS.

        >== Even if Bigger = cheaper was true, it can’t overcome the problem if the HLV vehicle is made
        > by Inefficient Company or Process A and the medium lift vehicle is made by More efficient
        > company or process B.

        None of the credible providers is much more or less efficient under the same contracting rules. Actual – its getting so all thats left in the industry is consolidated into ULA. ..Course now with Boeing effectively submitting 2 proposals you have competition between different groups withi Boeing for CCDev.

        • libs0n

          “Yes, but if you want to do BEO it would take a lot of MLV launches to add up to a single HLV launch. I can’t see us being able to launch say 6-8 Atlas’ or D-4′s close enough together to allow then to work together as one big BEO mission?”

          Here’s a plan for a lunar mission that would use 6 Delta Heavy class launches over a period of two years, which is within current capabilities:
          http://www.spacelaunchreport.com/moonslo.html

          We have to walk before we can run. Our current exploration mission rate is 0 and it will take a few years to raise that to 1 and then grow it to beyond 1. During this period there is time for launch companies to prepare to meet higher flight rates, and for certain companies to demonstrate to you that they are worth considering.

          ULA says that they can launch 12 Atlases a year, and that this can be expanded to 18 a year with the addition of another integration building at their launch pad in Florida and new staff hires, and they would welcome the challenge of meeting additional demand beyond that:
          http://spirit.as.utexas.edu/~fiso/telecon/Patton-Holguin_4-4-12/

          Here is a ULA paper on a proposal to modify the Atlas to support a new concept of mid-air retrieval of first stage engines, a first step by them if you will on evolving to support higher flight rates and reusability:
          http://www.ulalaunch.com/site/docs/publications/PartialRocketReuseUsingMidAirRecovery20087874.pdf

          • Kelly Starks

            > … Here’s a plan for a lunar mission that would use 6 Delta Heavy class launches over a
            > period of two years, which is within current capabilities:

            Thats a pretty pitiful concept. its even worse then the flags adn footprints of Apollo.

            I’ld be curious how they expect the fuel and LOx to not boil away after 2 years?

            > We have to walk before we can run. ==

            We walked before – this is going back to crawling. And after this long we should be moving up to far more then running. If this is all we can do – don’t bother.

            Really, its time to move past ’50′s stile capsules on missles.

            >– ULA says that they can launch 12 Atlases a year, and that this can be expanded to 18 a year
            > with the addition of another integration building at their launch pad –

            Probably could. Certainly the Atlas is by a long run in the lead for any new human launcher in the short term.

            >= modify the Atlas to support a new concept of mid-air retrieval of first stage engines, ==

            ?
            Be better to develop reusable stages rsather then extensivly modify a expendab’e to be partly (in mid air) salvagable.

        • C Bolden

          Kelly

          Suggest you start getting your facts right before you ‘wag your finger’ at experienced commentators. There’s are really useful site at astronautix.com which has verifiable facts and figures on real launch vehicles that you might find useful to study before you attack the reality of newspace companies like SpaceX, which in case you’ve missed it, have flown successful missions to orbit and back.

          Good luck
          Charlie

      • Joe2

        “1. Diminishing returns. Most of the gains from “bigger = cheaper” is in the transition from Falcon 1 sized rockets to Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. See this simplistic graph and imagine cost per kg of the left side, and vehicle size on the bottom. http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/law-of-diminishing-returns.png”

        Your graph is very simplistic indeed (did you draw it yourself) but seems to actually make the point I made, the bigger the rocket (up to some practical limit) the more efficient it will be per given number of launches. Thank you for reinforcing my point.

        “2. There are other economies of scale:
        A: Mass production. Falcon 9 has more customers including COTS/CRS. …
        B: High flight rates. …”

        These are the same point made twice. If the launch rates could be really be increased to high levels they would be valid. But unless a market to support those launch rates materialize (which as of now they have not) they are not pertinent to this discussion.

        “C: Reusability. ULA and SpaceX both have plans for evolved reusability, and other firms like Blue Origin have tentative interests in the field. A larger market influences the economic case of reusability. A market that demands 30-60 flights a year makes the business case for reusability better than a market that has 10 or less.”

        If there were a market more than a flight a week then that might be true (assuming the reusability can be delivered), but as of now there is not. Even then that market might support one supplier not 3 or 4.

        “Segregating NASA’s exploration demand to an HLV worsens the economics for improving the state of space launch.”

        On the contrary using HLV’s to (for instance) return to the Moon and begin ISRU activities might facilitate the development of a market to justify the high launch volume launch market you say you want

        “3. There is a large external market for medium lift payloads. All of the commercial and defense and other civil payloads market is in the medium lift class. ….”

        That market is not large enough to produce the kind of 30 to 60 launches per year market you previously listed or it would already exist. As is the DoD has to prop up the Atlas V/Delta IV system and you want to add extra competitors to the system.

        “4. HLV development cost.”

        To use “existing” medium lift vehicles for HSF BEO missions will require a cryogenic orbital propellant depot system that does not exists and will be considerably more of a technical challenge than an HLV. The money to do that “doesn’t come out of thin air” either, but you do not address that issue. By “allocating monies to” orbital propellant depot system “development, you have less to allocate to other things.” “Money spent on” orbital propellant depot systems “reduces the scope of NASA’s activities, including BEO HSF. That’s money not spent on a lander or lunar surface systems for instance.”

        “5. HLV operations costs. …”

        There are costs in operating any system. Or are you suggesting the cost of maintaining an orbital depot system will somehow (magically) be zero?

        The rest of your writing is a combination of Economics 101 for mass production industries that does not match the current launcher market combined with cheap shots at people/organizations you do not like.

        I have made a good faith attempt to respond to this rather lengthy essay and the differences in our opinions have been addressed. If you want to write another, it is a free country; but I have expended all the time on this I intend.

        • libs0n

          “Your graph is very simplistic indeed (did you draw it yourself) but seems to actually make the point I made, the bigger the rocket (up to some practical limit) the more efficient it will be per given number of launches. Thank you for reinforcing my point.”

          Oh I can assure you my graphs are much more crude:

          http://i.imgur.com/mPyc4.png

          Here, I filled one in to illustrate the point I was making throughout my last post, that the gains from making a bigger booster are diminishing, with the bulk of the gains made in the drop off from small LVs to medium ones, to the point that it can start to become counterproductive, which it is in the case of SLS. A case study for the law of diminishing returns and why the cost of launch is more complex than the single factor of improved mass fraction. Is improved mass fraction good? Yes. Is it the most important thing in the world and the only thing that matters. No.

          You can play at home too, Joe. Right now, the cost per kg of SLS is infinity. If worse comes to pass, and the SLS program continues, you’ll be able to plot the cost per kg of the SLS program as it continues by taking the dollar expenditures the program has spent in total, to be divided by the amount of mass it has lofted. You’ll wait a very long time before the date when the red line of SLS comes below the black line of SpaceX and ULA’s vehicle options, a day that I don’t think will ever come based upon the arguments I have presented.

          “If the launch rates could be really be increased to high levels they would be valid. But unless a market to support those launch rates materialize (which as of now they have not) they are not pertinent to this discussion.”

          That is the very point being made, that NASA’s exploration program can be a large market to support the advancement of commonly used competitive space launch, an opportunity lost if, instead of that, SLS is contructed to gobble up NASA’s exploration program’s demand for launch services.

          NASA’s BEO program is the hypothetical new market.

          Your animosity and antipathy for Musk and SpaceX bleeds through every comment you make about them, but perhaps you can recognize the possible advancement in launch cost reduction they may prove to offer, and that they were helped in coming to market by the demand of NASA’s ISS program through the COTS, CRS, and CCDEV programs to meet ISS needs.

          “If there were a market more than a flight a week then that might be true (assuming the reusability can be delivered), but as of now there is not. Even then that market might support one supplier not 3 or 4.”

          Take current demand in the medium lift class, in the form of defense payloads, NASA space science and ISS payloads, and commercial payloads, and add to it a hypothetical medium lift based NASA exploration program and you increase the total market size and launch rate. More market, more activity. I don’t know if that is enough for reusability to take off, but it is a better scenario than choosing a continued small market so you can preserve and enrich the Space Shuttle industrial power structure and give it a continual monopoly.

          “On the contrary using HLV’s to (for instance) return to the Moon and begin ISRU activities might facilitate the development of a market to justify the high launch volume launch market you say you want”

          No, because that outcome rests upon many personal fantasies and things that are fallaciously connected. It would be like saying in 70s, that building a RLV, in the flawed form of the reality of that RLV, the space shuttle, would lead to space solar power and orbital space colonies. Building SLS is not going to lead to that, because SLS is a white elephant that will limit the extent of NASA’s BEO program activities, because NASA does not have the funding scope for an expansive lunar development program of that sort and believing it currently does is a deluding yourself, because NASA is not institutionally capable of realizing that vision, because the actual real world economics of lunar water based propellant are unproven and suspect, because that vision is flawed in that it assumed that the missing thing from an expansive non-NASA space industry is cheap hydrolox propellant in space and not a whole lot of other factors as well.

          “That market is not large enough to produce the kind of 30 to 60 launches per year market you previously listed or it would already exist.”

          As previously covered above, the choice to have either have a medium lift based exploration program, or a heavy lift based exploration program, influences the seize of the market available to American launch vehicle firms in the medium lift class.

          I want to grow the market and pursue policies that grow the market, because a larger market increases the activity that benefits all users and future users of that market.

          “To use “existing” medium lift vehicles for HSF BEO missions will require a cryogenic orbital propellant depot system that does not exists and will be considerably more of a technical challenge than an HLV.”

          Not necessarily as there are exploration mission concepts that utilize in-space docking of separately launched mission elements, or hypergolic fuel based mission concepts, that do not feature a cryogenic orbital propellant depot.

          American firms like ULA have experience in in-space cryogenic systems, and have proposals for fuel depot concepts based upon them, so what you perceive as a mountain as tall as everest may be a much smaller mountain or hill to climb. You can go to ULA’s website to read their papers on the subject.

          I would propose evaluating the options available to us in a medium lift based exploration program and making an informed decision on which path we should take.

          Here’s the thing though Joe. You believe in building cryogenic fuel depots too. They are a necessary part of your plans for space. You are a follower of Paul Spudis and believe in his ideas of a lunar water based space infrastructure. But that requires hydrolox fuel depots and fillable hydrolox space stages, and an exploration program based upon them. But you do not take advantage of using that inevitable systems buildup to eliminate the expense of HLVs while building a lunar water compatible space infrastructure, as is the case in a medium lift based exploration program using cryogenic fuel depots.

          • Kelly Starks

            > == but it is a better scenario than choosing a continued small market so you can preserve and
            > enrich the Space Shuttle industrial power structure and give it a continual monopoly. ==

            But that industrial base is a lot more vauble then the exploration program. Lose it and we pretty much ended any potential to do a significant space effort from the US. no way congressis going to pull the plug on that.

            >– SLS is a white elephant that will limit the extent of NASA’s BEO program activities, because
            > NASA does not have the funding scope …

            Funding doesn’t work that way. If you get the votes, you get the funds. Its far easier to get billions for something for NASA, then hundreds of millions.

            >== the actual real world economics of lunar water based propellant are unproven and suspect, ===

            I’ld say specious.
            ;)
            Stating a big program that needs in space fuel suplies, to justify lunar mining.

            Its cheaper to just build a higher flight rate launcher to carry up more fuel and LOx.

      • Joe2

        “1. Diminishing returns. Most of the gains from “bigger = cheaper” is in the transition from Falcon 1 sized rockets to Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. See this simplistic graph and imagine cost per kg of the left side, and vehicle size on the bottom. http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/law-of-diminishing-returns.png”

        Your graph is very simplistic indeed (did you draw it yourself) but seems to actually make the point I made, the bigger the rocket (up to some practical limit) the more efficient it will be per given number of launches. Thank you for reinforcing my point.

        “2. There are other economies of scale:
        A: Mass production. Falcon 9 has more customers including COTS/CRS. …
        B: High flight rates. …”

        These are the same point made twice. If the launch rates could be really be increased to high levels they would be valid. But unless a market to support those launch rates materialize (which as of now they have not) they are not pertinent to this discussion.

        “C: Reusability. ULA and SpaceX both have plans for evolved reusability, and other firms like Blue Origin have tentative interests in the field. A larger market influences the economic case of reusability. A market that demands 30-60 flights a year makes the business case for reusability better than a market that has 10 or less.”

        If there were a market more than a flight a week then that might be true (assuming the reusability can be delivered), but as of now there is not. Even then that market might support one supplier not 3 or 4.

        “Segregating NASA’s exploration demand to an HLV worsens the economics for improving the state of space launch.”

        On the contrary using HLV’s to (for instance) return to the Moon and begin ISRU activities might facilitate the development of a market to justify the high launch volume launch market you say you want

        “3. There is a large external market for medium lift payloads. All of the commercial and defense and other civil payloads market is in the medium lift class. ….”

        That market is not large enough to produce the kind of 30 to 60 launches per year market you previously listed or it would already exist. As is the DoD has to prop up the Atlas V/Delta IV system and you want to add extra competitors to the system.

        “4. HLV development cost.”

        To use “existing” medium lift vehicles for HSF BEO missions will require a cryogenic orbital propellant depot system that does not exists and will be considerably more of a technical challenge than an HLV. The money to do that “doesn’t come out of thin air” either, but you do not address that issue. By “allocating monies to” orbital propellant depot system “development, you have less to allocate to other things.” “Money spent on” orbital propellant depot systems “reduces the scope of NASA’s activities, including BEO HSF. That’s money not spent on a lander or lunar surface systems for instance.”

        “5. HLV operations costs. …”

        There are costs in operating any system. Or are you suggesting the cost of maintaining an orbital depot system will somehow (magically) be zero?

        The rest of your writing is a combination of Economics 101 for mass production industries that does not match the current launcher market combined with cheap shots at people/organizations you do not like.

        I have made a good faith attempt to respond to this rather lengthy essay and the differences in our opinions have been addressed. If you want to write another, it is a free country; but I have expended all the time on this I intend.

  • Compared to Orbital Science and Lockheed Martin, you could also make a good case for Space Shuttle at 27,000+ kg to LEO for $500 million per launch ($18,300/kg), plus seven people, and you get most of the hardware back. Not to mention the ability to return nearly 14,000 kg from orbit.

    If Space X is able to maintain a reliable launch program, then we’ll have a reasonably cost-effective way to put payload into orbit, compared to an HLV design study. Birds and bushes and all that.

    • Joe2

      Sadly (as it becomes more and more apparent) the Space Shuttle looks better and better in hindsight. But at this point that really is “Birds and bushes and all that”. A SDHLV is still not (though the current Administration has worked hard to make it that way). And the economies of scale are relevant.

      The Falcon 9 may turn out to be a reliable booster with the performance the article claims, but if you are planning bigger activities then bigger boosters (obviously up to some practical maximum) are going to be more efficient.

      On the other hand if you are only interested in relatively small payloads why have even a Falcon 9 when you would need to launch 5 to 10 payloads on each flight to make use of its payload capacity. I know that is done now on some occasions but you could make the same argument for launching multiple payloads on some HLV launches.

      I all gets circular unless you know what your goal is. If you want to have a HSF BEO program you want some type of HLV. If you only want to launch payloads in the 1,500 to 2,000 kg. range to LEO why have even a Falcon 9.

  • wodun

    Economies of scale don’t kick in with one or two launches a year.

    • Joe2

      Two different definitions of economies of scale.

      Mass fractions of boosters get better up to some point (dependent on the specific design). That makes a bigger booster more efficient provided there are requirements for it.

      If you want to have a HSF BEO program then larger boosters (to be redundant – up to some point) is the way to go.

      If you do not you can make an argument for multiple payload launches on an HLV, but there are inefficiencies that tend to offset any gains.

      The same holds true for the smaller case. The Falcon 9 may (or may not) be able to launch 5 to 6 times the payload as the smaller boosters at roughly the same total cost (thus a lower cost per kilogram), but then you have to manifest/package multiple payloads on the same launch and that cost money also.

      So again the size of the booster you want should be driven by what you are trying to do.

      Your version of economies of scale can also be real, but it requires a number of launches not likely to be required in the foreseeable future. Perhaps at some point demand for launch services will increase to where those economies of scale will be a factor. Believe me when that happens I will be the happiest guy in the room.

  • Kelly Starks

    > The way I see it, SpaceX’s vastly lower prices suggest two things: Either the rest of the launch industry
    > is incredibly inefficient, or SpaceX is pricing its product too low. ==

    The other question is can they deliver on it? Actual customers are not reporting actual savings that high.

    Also, there is the “you get what you pay for” argument given their high failure rates. You would hardly care to accept their lower offers given the higher risks to their projects.

    >== For decades American rocket companies have shown little interest in reducing cost, mostly
    > because their main (and possibly only) customer was the U.S. government. which cared little
    > how much it cost to get payload into space. ==

    That’s the NewSpace assumption. Obviously given most of the launchers were developed for DOD market, or derived from DOD systems, cost wouldn’t be the highest priority. But then again, having the Gov eat the upfrount costs should give them a edge in lowering costs to commercials. Or conversly, if all the customers are so disinterested in costs, wouldn’t that counter the argument that SpaceX would do “some disturbance to the launch industry”?

    Really, the argument that SpaceX’s near 100 fold reduction in development costs etc, compared to previous or current rocket/capsule programs, are due to them being the first to care about cost reductions (due to the government driven market doesn’t encorage it), is really arrogance or ignorance. The rocket industries costs are not particularly high compared to any other aerospace project of similar scale (long range aircraft of similar cargo capacity, etc) which are in highly competitive markets. For that mater even wildly different industries have never seen such huge cost reductions in a established industry, from a newcomer with no dramatic new design or expertice. So assuming SpaceX’s results are highly suspicous.

    >== It is for this reason that, since the 1980s, these rocket companies have lost most of the
    > commercial market to either Russia or Arianespace, ==

    No a bigger problem is they legally can’t, due to ITAR, work with other nations adn support their launches. So locked out of so much of the market, they arn’t in a very good position

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