SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy wins Air Force launch contract


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Capitalism in space: SpaceX has won a $130 million Air Force contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch a military satellite.

The Falcon Heavy beat out a bid from United Launch Alliance for the mission labeled Air Force Space Command-52, or AFSPC-52, which is targeting liftoff from KSC’s pad 39A in 2020.

United Launch Alliance’s most powerful launcher, the Delta IV Heavy, has a price tag approaching $400 million.

The price comparison bears repeating: ULA: $400 million, SpaceX: $130. It is not surprising that SpaceX got the contract, though it does illustrate the difference between the Air Force’s space effort and NASA’s. The Air Force is making a concrete and real effort to lower its launch costs, using competition as a tool to do so. NASA, which faces the same kind of price comparison when comparing SLS to SpaceX, continues however to ignore that price difference and insist its future interplanetary manned programs must go with SLS, and SLS only.

In this context, I think this graph from Capitalism in Space is worth another look:

SLS vs commercial space

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8 comments

  • USAF has obligations that NASA does not, and so have much more incentive to save money. They could buy a couple Raptors from the savings on one launch

  • wodun

    Good point Blair Ivey. The AF budget is competitive with a lot more at stake while NASA’s budget isn’t.

    SpaceX lists prices from $90-150 million depending on how much performance is required. I wonder what the $140 million would get someone on the private market and how much goes into meeting the special needs of the government.

    Its good news they got another contract, too bad we have to wait until 2020 to see it.

  • Edward

    wodun,
    Since the price tag is based upon the amount of performance, perhaps the higher price is for launches in which the center core must be expended in order to get the maximum performance, as they do now with Falcon 9.

  • fred

    Your private vs. SLS chart would be improved if you included a column of Price/Rocket instead of total cost — that’s the proper, fair comparison metric.

    Also, it is worth pointing out that SLS/Orion has spent over 20 billion, over 10 years and flown ZERO flights to date.

  • Kirk

    NSF’s Chris Bergin wrote: “We have high confidence (higher than I could portray in this article) that FH beat out Atlas V 551, not Delta.”

    (551 = 5 meter fairing, 5 SRBs, single RL-10 upper stage — the most powerful Atlas V version flown to date.)

    https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=45594.msg1832807#msg1832807

  • Edward

    fred wrote: “Your private vs. SLS chart would be improved if you included a column of Price/Rocket instead of total cost — that’s the proper, fair comparison metric.

    If the only part that is considered is the ongoing cost per launch, without taking into account the one-time costs of development and ground equipment or the ongoing costs of training and other recurring non-flight expenses that may not be considered as part of the launch cost, then that is not quite a fair comparison. Especially since the Falcon and Falcon Heavy (FH) development costs are amortized into the launch prices of those rockets, which also includes other recurring expenses.

    The first FH launch (Roadster-FH) cost around half a billion dollars, including development, etc., but the operational launches will be in the range of $90-150 million.

    The first Space Launch System (SLS) launch (Orion-SLS) will cost over $20 billion, including development, etc., but the operational launches will likely be in the single-digit billions (the cost is unknown, as of yet, and partially depends upon the launch rate).

    The difference between today’s commercial space company rockets and the heritage government-directed rockets is that the former are fiercely competitive, as these companies are serious about finding efficiencies that will help increase their customer base. The latter were content in business as usual.

    In the 1990s an idea became popular, that rocket launches could become less expensive and more frequent by reusing the rocket. This was the model that the Space Shuttle was supposed to introduce, but the turn-around costs were too great to make the Shuttle practical (135 flights cost about $200 billion in total).

    Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) rockets were tried, but they failed before they could test the hypothesis. SpaceX brought about the idea of reusing first stages, bypassing the SSTO concept, at least for now, and that seems to have done the job. Perhaps later, SSTO will prove to be an even more efficient way to get to space.

    Once again, the development costs should be included in the comparison of efficiencies. As commercial companies, they will have to include that cost into the price tag.

  • fred: You should read Capitalism in Space from which this chart comes. It is a free pdf download.

    I can’t do a column with a price per rocket comparison, because there is no way to calculate the actual cost for an SLS launch. NASA isn’t interested in that metric, and doesn’t really care about its cost. The best we can do is add up the entire program’s cost to fly its first single mission. And that total as shown in the chart, is many times the cost of a Falcon Heavy launch. In fact, for the $43 billion shown on the chart, you could buy 286 Falcon Heavy launches, using only new boosters, at $150 million per launch.

  • Richard M

    Bergin confirms what I’ve been suspecting, which is that ULA actually bid a high end Atlas V for this bird. If that’s the case, the savings would not be as dramatic, something more like $40-100 million, depending on just what requirements the Air Force demanded on this bid. Which is still, of course, quite a few taxpayer dollars.

    Of course it’s not impossible that ULA submitted bids for *both* launchers – though come to think of it, I had thought that all remaining Delta IV Heavies were already spoken for through 2023. I don’t know how easy it would be to add an additional set of cores for a launcher already on the downslope to phaseout, just two years from launch.

    And it’s quite *amazing* that the Air Force was ready to accept the FH as certified after only a single test flight – even before the USAF’s STP-2 test mission this autumn. Nice to see.

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