This week, the Miles Team Weekly Topic rotation once again revisits a topic the competitors. In particular, we’ll be looking at launch costs in our four topic rotation on subject matter relevant to the NASA Cube Quest Challenge.
Costs, they are astronomical. It is extremely expensive to build something that will go into space, very expensive to operate in space, and the largest costs of all are in getting something into space. Costs to consider when building space-going equipment include: precise machining to reduce the high probability of failure, the machinery has to survive the extreme environment of space, the vendors that invent and manufacture the equipment have very low sales volumes to recoup their costs, there is no salvage value can be claimed at the end of the mission, and the cost of supporting a specialized and highly knowledgeable team of engineers to make the machine right the first time is significant. Even operating it in space is costly. If your satellite is in anything but geosynchronous orbit, then you need access/paid time on giant communications arrays spread around the planet. There is also the cost of any highly trained individuals that an organization may retain to control, monitor, and troubleshoot for the spacecraft. NASA’s Deep Space Network is well over $1000/hr to rent its services. Cubsatshop.com has a small low earth orbit ground station for sale starting at around $70,500. But by far, the largest costs are the launch costs.
Launch costs basically entail that you build a highly specialized piece of machinery and the supporting launch infrastructure only to mount the payload on top of a multi-million dollar launch vehicle to throw it all away after using it once. An analogy to show the expense is, take the current SpaceX launch of the Falcon 9 as the equivalent of purchasing a new Boeing 737, flying it from New York to London, then (upon completion of that one way trip) throwing the entire aircraft away. Although launch providers charges vary wildly depending on the launch vehicle, they charge roughly about $10,000 dollars per kilogram to place a payload in lower earth orbit (LEO), about $27,000 per kilogram to place a payload in greater earth orbit/geosynchronous orbit (GEO/GSO), and although no launch providers regularly place payloads in lunar orbit, the price we were quoted was about $100,000 per kilogram. These prices are what make the NASA Cube Quest Challenge so enticing.
Aboard the EM-1 SLS launch in 2018, there are twelve spots for secondary payloads in the stage adapter section of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). Most of these spots are reserved for small science missions or for university projects. The Cube Quest Challenge’s ground tournament design rounds are exclusively for deciding who among the entrants get to have an all-expenses paid launch trip going from LEO to GEO to a trajectory that flies right past the moon. The small cubesat NASA approved deployer alone costs about $60,000+ dollars apiece, let alone the cost of the ride into space itself. It still costs a significant amount to put a spacecraft into orbit, but it is worth noting that an individual citizen in the developed world can personally afford to put a small amount of equipment into space.
One of the ways that technology becomes more affordable is through either significant cost reduction in the materials or in the manufacturing process. Another way would be by producing enough of the product (for a market large enough) that you capture the economies of scale by distributing the costs of design and operations overhead over a large consumer pool. The larger the group of consumers, the more the cost of the product becomes more akin to just purchasing the raw materials and a very small fraction of the total required overhead and infrastructure. We live in an exciting time because SpaceX, by landing their Falcon 9 first stage on their drone barge the Friday before last, were able to achieve one of those significant, game-changing, cost reductions for the space industry. By recovering the first stage for reuse, each launch customer will not have to buy an entirely new first stage for each launch that will be completely destroyed by the fall to earth after running out of fuel. The momentum of this achievement and the cost reductions will make the space industry larger by enabling more individuals to financially partake in the industry’s opportunities.
On April 8th, 2016, Space X landed its second orbital-class rocket, Falcon 9 first stage, on a drone barge. Previously, they had successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage on land. However, the ocean barge landing will afford them much better fuel conservation and greater flexibility in the placement of the landing site. Congratulations on a monumental achievement, SpaceX! We look forward to what will result of these breakthroughs!
Below are links to the videos of the ocean and land recoveries of the Falcon 9 first stages.