How much does it cost to launch a rocket?
Historically, satellite launches conducted by NASA’s first contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) have cost taxpayers up to $ 400 million per launch. But since Elon Musk entered the space race with his pioneering space company SpaceX, he has been working to reduce the cost by 75% or more.
Already, the launches conducted by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which cost $ 62 million and $ 90 million respectively, have seriously lowered ULA’s prices. Musk’s challenge now is to further reduce these costs. The more successful you have with this, the harder it will be for publicly traded space companies like Lockheed Martin is Boeing (co-owners of ULA) to compete with SpaceX.
And last week, the SpaceX CEO told us how he did it does plan to be successful.
The base case
According to SpaceX’s “Capabilities & Services” statement, a single Falcon 9 rocket, fully loaded with fuel and launching the largest payload it can carry in low Earth orbit (22.8 metric tons), costs $ 62 million. more than 75% off what ULA used to charge.
How Reusable Rockets Reduce Costs …
This is the base price for launching a Falcon 9 rocket. But what about reusability? SpaceX said that launching a rocket only once and allowing its two stages to burn in the atmosphere is like building an airplane, flying a full load of passengers across the Atlantic, and then launching the plane upon arrival. To go home, you should buy a completely new plane.
From SpaceX’s perspective, it makes more sense to design rockets so they can be reused.
Now, to reuse a rocket, you need to get more fuel up, so you have fuel to burn coming back down. Carrying that extra fuel, Musk said in Twitter comments, shifts the payload that a Falcon 9 can carry by about 40 percent. And once the rocket has been recovered, it needs to be inspected and refurbished to be ready for relaunch, adding perhaps 10% to the cost of building a new rocket.
As a result, Musk says, between the reduction in capacity (~ 40%) and the cost of salvage and refurbishment (~ 10%), reusing a rocket roughly halves its efficiency compared to the carrying capacity of a expendable rocket – and roughly doubles the launch cost per kilogram.
… and how low enough it is for reusability to make sense
But it’s only on the first launch, says the CEO: “You’re more or less even [on cost] with 2 flights [and] definitely ahead with 3. ”
Payload reduction due to booster and fairing reusability is <40% for F9 and recovery and reconditioning is <10%, so you're more or less even with 2 flights, definitely ahead with 3
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 19 August 2020
So the third time is the charm. And here’s the thing: Last month, one of SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 completed its sixth launch and landing.
Mathematically speaking, launching and landing a single Falcon 9 six times should cost about half the cost of building, launching, but not landing six brand new rocket ships, allowing SpaceX to underestimate the competition by at least half and still remain profitable. Also, according to Musk, “there is no obvious limit” to the number of times a Falcon 9 should be reused. “More than 100 flights are possible” on a single rocket, although SpaceX would have to pay for the cost of replacing parts as they wear out.
Further reduce costs
And there may be room for further improvement. As SpaceX works to reuse more and more rocket parts, costs could drop dramatically. Consider that, on a single $ 62 million rocket launch:
- The first phase accounts for 60% of the total cost ($ 37.2 million)
- The second phase comprises 20% of the total cost ($ 12.4 million)
- The cost of the fairing is 10% ($ 6.2 million) and
- Costs “associated with the launch itself” (infrastructure, $ 0.2 million of launch fuel, additional $ 0.2 million for land and other overheads) contribute to the final 10% – $ 6.2 million.
The last goal
Ultimately, Musk hopes to push the “marginal cost of a Falcon 9 launch … below $ 5 million or $ 6 million” – that is, only those costs “associated with the launch itself” – by reusing every part of a rocket. . Of course, if you add the costs for regeneration those parts for reuse, which likely adds another 10% (of $ 62 million). But even so, this likely pushes the costs below $ 12 million per launch for a fully reusable spaceship.
Mind you, all the numbers above are constantly changing. They seem to change a bit every time Musk tackles the issue of his cost structure. According to a recent article on Inverse.com, for example, Musk says the “best” cost for a fully reusable spaceship would be $ 15 million. But whether the final answer is $ 12 million or $ 15 million – or really, anything in that neighborhood – the end result is clear.
Nobody used to charge hundreds of millions of dollars for a expendable rocket launch that will be able to match SpaceX’s prices in the tens of millions. And that’s the most important thing to know about the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – it’s just too cheap to beat it.