Lowering the cost of space travel

SpaceX Grasshopper vertical take-off and landing rocketRobert Heinlein once observed that “Once you get to earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.” How unfortunate then, that in recent years, many within the space establishment appear to have completely given up on lowering the cost of reaching orbit. From the ever increasing costs of the heavily subsidized EELV program to the astronomical estimates for the Space Launch System, (each claiming they are “cost effective,” by the way) current NASA space transportation systems, with one critical exception, are all headed in the wrong direction.

The exception of course, is the COTS program, which has helped to sponsor the development of two new launch vehicles, the Orbital Sciences Antares, and the SpaceX Falcon.  The former offers a modest return to the historical pricing level of early launch vehicles. The latter however, is utterly revolutionary.

Even though SpaceX has been operating for just one decade, their Falcon 9 rocket is already one of the cheapest way to get into space (see table below). SpaceX have achieved this by vertically integrating their production process: put simply, metal goes into their factory, and spaceships come out. Traditionally, aerospace companies contract out everything. Then those contractors then subcontract. Although this was initially conceived as a way of cutting costs, it is obvious that this doesn’t work, as every company involved has to make a profit. In the worse examples of this, you need to go down four or five layers before you find anyone actually using a tool. By continuing to be self-reliant, and by making further efficiency savings as they learn and grow, SpaceX have publicly stated that they believe costs of less than $1,000 per kg are “very achievable.”

Cost to launch various rockets

 However, this is all before you consider the *total game-changer* that is reusable rockets. Building and launching a Falcon 9 from scratch costs $60 million, but the fuel used in the launch costs a mere $200,000. If the rocket can be returned intact (whilst still accounting for maintenance, and so forth) the cost of access to space can be reduced ten-fold, if not 100-fold. Think as low as $10 per kilo to get into orbit. This is not just a pipe dream; SpaceX has been flying their prototype Grasshopper vehicle higher and higher in the last few months, and have landed it safely every single time (see the latest test in the video below). SpaceX are going to attempt to try and ‘land’ every spent primary-stage of every future rocket on their busy launch schedule. Sooner or later, they will succeed.

It may be a big ‘if’, but if SpaceX can accomplish this, their extremely low prices will capture the entire launch market, and dramatically expand that market, opening up space to new customers who could not afford the previously prohibitive costs. Customers like universities, commercial enterprise and private individuals can all afford $10 per kilo. Space will become – for the first time in this so-called ‘Space Age’ – truly accessible for everyone.

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