My annual February birthday month fund-raising campaign for Behind the Black is now over. It was the best February campaign ever, and the second best of all of my month-long fund-raising campaigns.


There were too many people who contributed to thank you all personally. If I did so I would not have time for the next day or so to actually do any further posts, and I suspect my supporters would prefer me posting on space and culture over getting individual thank you notes.


Let this public thank suffice. I say this often, but I must tell you all that you cannot imagine how much your support means to me. I’ve spent my life fighting a culture hostile to my perspective, a hostility that has often served to squelch my success. Your donations have now allowed me to bypass that hostility to reach a large audience.


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What ISRO charges for a launch

Capitalism in space: This article, outlining the overall expenditures and earnings of India’s space agency, ISRO included this tidbit about the price it charges for launches:

Several companies like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Russia’s Proton ULA, and Arianespace are big names in the space but ISRO’s Antrix provides competitive rates for commercial launches. ISRO, that has now become a specialist in launching satellites, cost a third of SpaceX launches. The low rates are probably because of ISRO’s location while its Indian engineers earn a fraction of the salaries that engineers would command in foreign countries. [emphasis mine]

If India does charge in the range of $20 to $30 million per launch they are in a strong position to compete with SpaceX, even after it reduces its prices because of the use of used first stages.

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  • Des

    The latest Indian booster has less than half the lift capacity of the latest Falcon 9. If this price is correct then they are just about competitive against current SpaceX prices without factoring any price reductions for reuse that Spacex might make.

  • LocalFluff

    We’ll see for how long the Indian rocket scientists are satisfied with low salaries, and their employers with charging low prices. Price competition that rests on monetary policy and regulations that impede competition can be effective for focusing resources on a government favored industry. It is in effect financed by a redistributing “currency tax” on those who do the work (and the entire population). There will be a transition period they will have to go through, adapting to globally more equal costs given similar technology. If they will compete internationally for real, they will need to compete with technology and organization, not with purchasing parity manipulating regulations. Which probably means specialization on what turns out to become their strongest sides and accept the international supply chain interdependencies that requires. Russia’s brain drain and quality problems seem to come from resisting that adaptation. East Asian countries who used similar policies to get their manufacturing industries going around the 1970s did make that transition to global competition very well.

  • Dick Eagleson

    The linked article is more than a bit ambiguous in a number of places. It’s not absolutely clear from the immediate context what rocket is being talked about anent that “cost a third of SpaceX launches” remark. The majority of the article seems to concern itself with the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The XL model – the most capable of three PSLV models – is specifically identified as the rocket that put up 104 satellites in one mission. The article refers to this as ISRO’s “most powerful rocket.” But it is not. It is simply the most powerful rocket in the PSLV line. Taking everything into consideration, though, the PSLV-XL is most likely the rocket that supposedly is 1/3 the price of a SpaceX launch.

    If so, SpaceX is in no particular bind. One-third of Falcon 9’s current price is a bit over $20 million. Wikipedia says the CA (core alone) model of PSLV costs $15 million, though there is no identified source for this claim. The standard G version of PSLV is the CA version with six SRB’s attached. The highest performance XL version of the PSLV is the CA with six SRB’s of a larger model than used on the G model. If the Wikipedia price for the PSLV-CA is accurate, the $20 or so million price implied for PSLV-XL in the article is certainly quite plausible.

    But PSLV-XL is only capable of delivering 1.8 tonnes to GTO. Falcon 9’s payload capability to GTO, while still allowing for 1st stage recovery, is 5.5 tonnes, a bit over three times as much. There being few if any satellites in its GTO-capable weight class, PSLV – of any model – is no competitor to Falcon 9 for such missions.

    Most PSLV missions have been to LEO sun-sync orbits including the one carrying 104 separate birds. PSLV is roughly competitive with Falcon 9 in this regime on a bird-for-bird basis, though its SSO payload, as with its GTO payload, is less than a third of F9’s to the same inclination and altitude. Given that F9 has at least one such smallsat gang-delivery mission already booked, with options for more, SpaceX certainly hasn’t priced itself out of this market.

    Being expendable, the PSLV is more production-limited than F9 anyway. The most PSLV’s ever launched in one calendar year was six in 2016. Only four launches are planned this year.

    ISRO’s actual most powerful rocket is the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk. 3, which gets a mention near the end of the article. It can put 4 tonnes into GTO. Wikipedia reports its price as being $46 – 62 million. That’s the approximate range of SpaceX F9 pricing for flight-proven and new F9’s, respectively. GSLV Mk. 3 would, thus – at least in theory – be competitive with F9 for launch of smaller GEO comsats. That is exactly the sort of payload ISRO designed it to loft and is what it carried on its first mission a week ago.

    But that mission carried an Indian government comsat, not a commercial one. GSLV Mk. 3 could, one presumes, be offered for commercial use in future, but it is likely to be even more production-limited than PSLV as it is much larger. It would be doing well to get even one commercial payload a year and the Indian government may well monopolize its services for some time.

    Bottom line? The Indians are not a real threat to SpaceX now and aren’t likely to be for some time. Their time may come, but I think that, like every other launch services provider, the Indians are going to need to build reusable vehicles to challenge SpaceX in any substantive way.

  • Edward

    From the article: “The low rates [prices] are probably because of ISRO’s location while its Indian engineers earn a fraction of the salaries that engineers would command in foreign countries.

    Satish Dhawan Space Centre is about 13 degrees north of the equator, but I doubt that this has a tremendous price advantage, for GEO satellites, over rockets launched from Kennedy Space Center, 28 degrees north. Even the Russians, who launch close to 60 degrees north, are able to charge relatively low prices for GEO launches.

    I suspect that it is the low salaries of the Indian workers that allow for satellites to be launched for such low prices. Think of it as the workers subsidizing the launch costs for the commercial customers.

    Everyone (anyone?), the next time you launch from India, be sure to thank their workers for your lower costs, and please buy them lunch once or twice. I certainly appreciated it whenever the customer did that for us when I was building commercial satellites, and I still think fondly of Charlie Ergen.

    On the other hand, Dick Eagleson’s analysis shows that India’s PSLV-XL carries 1/3 the weight of a SpaceX Falcon 9 for 1/3 the cost, meaning that, just as with GSLV, pound for pound (kg for kg), the price is similar. So, maybe PSLV and GSLV aren’t as subsidized as I thought, but please buy the guys lunch anyway.

    Dick Eagleson’s comment almost comes close to nearly hinting at SpaceX’s increasing launch rate. SpaceX has a better launch rate and cadence than its competition, because SpaceX has worked hard to create that cadence. They have created processes and procedures that allow for an increased cadence, increased the number of launch pads that they use, taken advantage of improved range tracking capabilities, created reusable first stages to reduce dependence on a rapid manufacturing rate, and priced their service to attract more customers than their competition. Few competitors have taken most of these actions, although range tracking is fairly universal to all US launch companies launching from any given site, so any site-improvements tend to be improvements for all.

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