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Two news items from NASA today:
- NASA has picked SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch NOAA’s Jason-3 ocean survey satellite.
- NASA has picked United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Delta 2 rocket to launch the SMAP, OCO-2, and JPSS-1 climate satellites.
What I find most interesting about these stories is the fees charged by the two companies. SpaceX will be paid $82 million for its one launch, while ULA will be paid $412 million for its three launches, or about $137 million per launch.
There many factors influencing the cost of a rocket launch. For example, SMAP, OCO-2, and JPSS-1 might be heavier than Jason-3 and would thus require a more powerful launch vehicle. This would increase the launch cost. (Though in this case this probably doesn’t apply. The Delta 2 generally appears to put less payload into orbit than Falcon 9, though because there are many variants of the Delta 2, this comparison might not be valid for these particular launches.)
Moreover, it isn’t just cost that determines the choice of a launch vehicle. NASA has had two previous failures trying to get an OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) into orbit, using the newer and cheaper Taurus rocket from Orbital Sciences. The agency probably decided after two failures it was worth spending some extra money to get a proven rocket that could be trusted to work on the third try.
Nonetheless, on their face these numbers show the Falcon 9 to be about 35% cheaper to use than the Delta 2. At these prices, it is going to be increasingly difficult for other rocket companies to compete with SpaceX, unless they somehow lower their costs. It is probably for this reason that the European Space Agency appears to be reviewing how it builds its rockets. Similarly, ULA will have increasing problems in future years selling the Delta 2 unless it can make it more competitive with Falcon 9, as will the Russians, Indians, Chinese, and all other American rocket companies.
As I like to say, the competition is heating up. And the best part of this battle is that it is going to force downward the price of getting payloads into orbit, the result of which will be that space and its exploration will become more accessible to everyone. With lower costs will come more customers. More customers will increase demand, which might cause the prices to go up but in this case is more likely to encourage the appearance of new launch companies, all striving to win that increasing customer base with competitive and cheaper launch costs. And these lower costs will once again increase the customer base, which will once again encourage more companies to enter the market, which will once again lower the cost and increase the customer base. Etc, etc.
Eventually this competition and the lowering of costs — more than any other innovation or government action — will make space travel routine.
And to that I say, “Amen! Hallelujah!”