SpaceX – Breaking the $1000 per Pound Launch Cost Barrier

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

SpaceX Falcon Heavy

John Strickland explains how SpaceX can drive launch costs to less than one tenth that of competing rocket systems:

“When people see this cost comparison, they ask all over again ‘How can he (Musk) do that?’ How can the Falcon outperform the Delta by such a wide margin? The three main reasons seem to be (1) low manufacturing cost (2) low operational cost (time efficient operations design and low man-hours needed per launch) and (3) high efficiency performance in flight. The first two have already been demonstrated by the Falcon 9, and they continue to be improved, such as a recently announced two-thirds reduction of fuel loading time. The SpaceX paradigm is one of continuous improvement.

The first reason (low manufacturing cost) is exercised again in the “Heavy” by using three nearly identical rocket stages (instead of two solids and a core stage), which means more production of the same units, thus reducing their unit cost. The SpaceX plant in Hawthorne, California, is building towards the capability of producing a Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week and an upper stage every two weeks. Within five years, SpaceX expects to be producing more large rocket engines per year (several hundred) than all other rocket companies on the planet combined. Engine production costs will thus decline still more. (Dragon production, depending on demand, is planned for a rate of one every six to eight weeks.)

The third reason (high efficiency in flight) is partly achieved by the standard methods of making the engines fuel efficient, with high thrust and low mass, and making the overall structural mass of each stage as low as possible. Musk has apparently done this better than anyone else. For example, the two side boosters have a fully fueled to empty mass ratio of 30. Additional flight efficiency is achieved by propellant cross-feeding (see below).”

Elon Musk talks more about the SpaceX cost advantage here. SpaceX is breaking from industry norms by being up front about their launch prices and publishing them on the web. Click here and scroll down to see the price for a Falcon Heavy launch ($83 million) and that the payload it will be able to carry to LEO is 117,000 pounds. That works out to $709 per pound, less than the $1000 per pound BTE goal for the Heavy Lifter to be used  for launching the Enterprise components into space. And the ‘Falcon Super Heavy’ which is not yet shown on the SpaceX site should have an even lower launch price per pound. SpaceX is certainly blazing a whole new trail.

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33 Responses to SpaceX – Breaking the $1000 per Pound Launch Cost Barrier

  1. Josh says:

    Just like computers, costs and size will keep going down until we look back and laugh at $709. Bring it, Future.

    • Josh says:

      Not to diminish their accomplishments though, I’m really glad that a semi-transparent company actually exists

    • Jeff says:

      Agreed. MY question is if SpaceX can launch for far less than competing rocket systems and thus, stealing their competitor’s customers, WHY do they have to explain how they are able to do it? SpaceX is a privately owned company, right?

  2. Mitchz95 says:

    Maybe this will give NASA second thoughts about continuing the SLS program.

    • BTE-Dan says:

      I wonder that too, but the Falcon Heavy is not in production yet so it is unproven. And it’s payload is a lot smaller than the SLS. So the SLS could do missions that that Falcon Heavy could not.

      The Falcon ‘Super Heavy’ competes more directly with the SLS, but it it is still in early development and there is not much info on it.

    • Grand Lunar says:

      I doubt it, due to the political involvement in the SLS’s developement.

      Also, it is claimed that the SLS is ahead of schedule. So it isn’t likely that a program that is actually on track will be reconsidered, especially given it’s greater performance.

      I just wish more productive missions were planned for it.

  3. John says:

    I won’t be surprised when SpaceX is the first to create a fully reusable rocket system. I wonder if they’d be interested in the Enterprise project. Have they been contacted?

    • BTE-Dan says:

      I emailed them once or twice before but got no response.

    • Mitchz95 says:

      They’ll probably want to wait until we’ve made some more headway before they get invested in BTE. And of course there has to be something in it for them (meaning profit).

      • John says:

        As for profit, they could mine materials off the moon, Mars, and various other places. Also, research and development of better technology necessary to build the Gen1 Enterprise would produce technology that could benefit them financially by producing and selling it. Space tourism wouldn’t hurt them either. There are numerous other ways they could benefit from it. Once the ISS is through, SpaceX will need something else to do. It might even be good to have numerous companies besides SpaceX to invest such as other space companies, big computer companies, and any other technology company or just any corporation with enough money to consider investing. It’d be nice if everyone from corporations to private citizens from all across the world invested in a BTE corporation contributing money and technology necessary to get it done. First we need to do something else to get widespread media attention again and cash in on the opportunity presented by interest stirred from Star Trek: Into Darkness.

  4. ruir says:

    I hope they will really take an active part on BTE!!!

  5. Grand Lunar says:

    The main thing the Falcon Heavy doesn’t have going for it is the lack of a high-energy upper stage.

    Because of that, it’s capacity for GTO (IIRC) is not much better than the Delta IV Heavy.

    When a LH2/LOX upper stage becomes part of the Falcon’s design, then we ought to see much improved performance.

  6. dror says:

    reduce -> reuse-> recycle !
    to lower the cost of launch per lb we can try another concept, recycled launcher.
    the concept was sugested for the space shuttle but was never adupted by nasa.
    the idea is to use the upper stage and faring as raw meterials in orbit. the upper stage consists of the most needed resorces for building in space:
    aluminium, fuel leftovers, oxygen leftovers, nitrogen gas, fuel tanks, and fully operational engine and flight computers. these can all be digested into raw meterials or used directly for the construction.
    had nasa adopted this method for the space shuttle program, they could have 1400 tons of metal, 200 tons of oxygen and 600 tons of hydrogen orbiting in space.
    i think that this is nasa’s biggest mishap ever.
    anyway, if we can include this method into the Enterprise concept, i think that launch costs can be greatly lowered.

    • BTE-Dan says:

      Do you mean leave the upper stage in space rather than return it to Earth? Returning it to Earth saves some cost too if the upper stage is re-used for another launch. So perhaps you are saying it is more cost effective to leave it in space.

      • dror says:

        yes, I mean leaving it in space and use it for the construction of the enterprise.

      • dror says:

        this is one way to do it, but i think that for the enterprise we willl need to fully disassemble the tanks for raw materials.

        • A tube is not a bad structural shape, especially in space where there no gravity to make I-beam shapes favorable. It’s also worth noting that space habitats have pretty much the same physical constraints as tanks, so reusing tanks make quite a bit of sense. Skylab was, essentially, a tank, and for part of it’s design existence was a really a tank (what is called a wet station design , i believe) until they decided to use a full Saturn to send it up and the fuel was no longer required.
          The Enterprise is so large, using 4m diameter tubes as structural members might actually make sense.

          As a interesting option, it is possible to sent a simple, single stage ship directly to orbit (required velocity of about 9500 m/s). As expected, the payload in such a case is tiny. However, it the ship structure is the payload, then the ‘useful’ payload is quite large. If the engine can be sent back to ground for reuse, perhaps with an inflatable heat shield, you basically have a fully reusable transportation system at a fraction of the cost.

          • BTE-Dan says:

            I could see the tubes being useful as structural support members on the ship. Also, it seems like if you send a rocket on a one way trip like this, you could always add on a small payload for this one way trip. Even say a couple of thousand pounds of miscellaneous payload could be useful because of the flexibility this brings to each launch. So maybe this could be done and it is still a simple SSTO rocket as you suggest.

            • Grand Lunar says:

              This merits an article of it’s own, I think.

              Given the stresses a rocket stage already encounters in atmospheric flight, as a structural member it ought to be able to take the normal stresses in space flight.

              Another thought; if this idea works out, then in this context, we’ve actually given the ship it’s own version of Jefferies tubes!

          • dror says:

            that was my thought exactly, only that if combined with the falcon heavy cross feeding concept, it is considered two stages, and the payload remains significant. the side core boosters can be reused since they fall off early on the flight, and the center core, which is the seconed stage, can be used in space to fit our needs.

    • Grand Lunar says:

      I can see how the soliar material is reused, but not the fluids, especially hydrogen.
      Most tanks don’t store hydrogen for more than a few hours, so it would’ve boiled off by the time a craft goes up to defuel it.

      It also makes better sense to go by SpaceX’s plan for recovering the upper stage.
      It’s tricky taking all that equipment apart. Why not leave it in one piece to either bring it back under it’s own power, or to refuel it at a depot and repurpose it?

      • dror says:

        you can store the hydrogen as one of its products:
        you can store it as water,
        you can use co2 from used air and create methane,
        you can quickly use it as propelant for altitude keeping.
        anything but throwing it back.

      • dror says:

        reusing might be the better way, but it may be that the exstra weight for heat shields, landing gear, and so and the extra costs of the reusable technology will make it more cost effective to use it in space. remember that a pound in space is worth 1000 $. it may be a waste to take it up and down so many times putting so much money for the lounch of the louncher itself.

        • Grand Lunar says:

          We’ll see how it turns out with SpaceX’s idea, I suppose.

          First stage reusablity is more or less a must.

          We could go for SSTO depending on what we’re doing with it.

  7. dror says:

    I found about this company “space island”:
    they had a well established plan for reusing the external tanksand build space stations based on them. their plan is far from perfect and maybe thats why they disappeared, but there is a lot we can learn from them, especially in their funding concept. I hope to hear your thoughts about it.

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