Launch costs – are we there yet?

What’s the cost per pound? It’s one of the eternal questions in our launch business, like “when is NASA going to Mars” and “who called this meeting?” If you were curious about this question more than 15 years ago, you would quickly hear someone say – it’s about $10,000 a pound.

Nowadays, we can ask Alexa, giving us the same answer, “roughly $10,000 a pound, according to NASA.” The calm of that voice means this must be right (umm.) However, Alexa will need to keep up since we now have an AI you can talk to for a long while about this question. (My OpenAI bookmark says, “time suck.”) OpenAI’s metric answer is “around $5,000 to $25,000 per kilogram.” I’m happy to report this last answer is not far off the mark.

 For bonus points, there’s always someone who will say, for any value, the Space Shuttle cost was so much more. This conversation goes downhill very predictably with a defensive posture. Here someone breaks in, saying the Shuttle’s cost per pound was much less – if you exclude most costs.

Never did a question have so much rounding up and down all around the place.

As someone who has tracked this question for decades, the curious part is not the answers but how the answers are getting better. When most flights were government contracts, the data, if you had it, came with a million asterisks. On the other hand, private contracts hid what a launcher business charged a satellite customer for reasons that never held up to scrutiny.

This week, with the ABL RS1 and the Relativity Space Terran 1 at their launch pads, ready for their first launch, I thought it was time to update my launch price charts. The one in Alaska and the other at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, each rocket promises to launch over a metric ton for $12M a launch. That’s not a bad deal at all.

In the colorful graph below, notice how the eye draws a line for the small launchers. Except prices are way lower if you can wait and share a ride with others on a Falcon 9. The Minotaur, launching only for the US DOD, and the Vega from Europe, also break with the pack, but on the high side. If ABL and Relativity succeed as advertised, Firefly and Virgin Orbit must be taking notes.

Launch cost (as price) per kg. Updates to this chart will be over at “Recent space launch pricing” (or through the menu.) Credit:
SpaceX knows how to ruin a pattern. And so does the US DOD (with Minotaur.)

Among other updates, I am graying out the Pegasus as ridiculously expensive, with no prospects ahead. SpaceX eliminated any possibility of yet another “last” launch of Pegasus by offering NASA a $50.3M launch for the 293kg IXPE mission. (The meeting at SpaceX for this bidding must have included the usual considerations about competitors, like the Pegasus. Also, other business calculations, like “hit ’em when they’re down.”)

Over in the hollering incoming category, the Ariane 6 and ULA Vulcan appear to be trying to put a dent in the SpaceX Falcon 9. This is clearer when using the maximum capability of Falcon 9 for its reuse case. That is to say, reusable Falcon 9s offer less payload capability than expendable ones. (There is also a variation between the booster returning to land or sea, with more reuse cases for the Falcon Heavy vs. Falcon 9, five vs. three). I have it from a good source – the Falcon 9 maximum payload capability, returning to the Cape, or landing at sea on a drone ship, is 11.7 and 15.5 metric tons resp.)

The red dots, upcoming Ariane 6s and Vulcans, need to adjust their aim, lower.

Still, the Ariane 6 and Vulcans in development have only to miss their advertised price targets by a little to run into trouble. Best they adjust their aim, if they still can, and want to compete. You can also see why staying in the Atlas/Ariane 5 oval above the Falcon oval was a formula for irrelevance, necessitating these new products.

This will all shake out, of course. Rather than debating how the industry moves down from $10,000 a pound (or $22,222 per kg), we finally have a readily available, reliable, and more sustainable, reusable launch for anyone. You can get a SpaceX Falcon 9 (booster landing on a drone ship at sea) for as little as $2,000/kg. And we have seen how SpaceX can launch weekly. If you’re a small payload, rideshares can be had for as little as $6,000 a kg. Anxious to get going, Electrons have been hitting their stride too and go for a reasonable price (perhaps with less wait.)

We are moving on to new problems of the sort we want to have.

Fortunately, the launch business now faces much more exciting questions than costs per pound. We are moving on to new problems of the sort we want to have.

  1. Will SpaceX really land a 15-story high lander on the Moon, carrying NASA astronauts?
  2. With lower launch prices, will we finally see an everyday product on Earth labeled “Made in Earth Orbit?” (Being specific from the start, in case we have facilities in orbit somewhere else too.)
  3. How do we get to a cost per pound to orbit of about $100 ($222/kg)

Oh, and when will we get an AI that gets data from all over and makes these graphs on a whim?

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