17 thoughts on “Launch Costs”

  1. It seems to me if you have a high flightrate, at least you can get some value for these expenditures vs keeping a large standing army for the odd, small skirmish.

    But then again, I think you once argues that just about the most inefficient architecture could be made workable if you could fly often enough.

    Some study you did at Rockwell you once made a post on Rand? It’s been years.

  2. I think the question that will become important is how much it will cost to keep NASA tied to the SLS instead of having them use Starship and Superheavy.

    As a thought experiment, suppose Washington kept giving them the money they’re getting now for personnel, infrastructure support, and existing contract amounts with Boeing, Rocketdyne, and all the rest. That would allow them to do some flights, where “some” is a very small non-negative integer. Then add a relatively minor funding increase to buy a bunch Starship flights on the side, where “a bunch” might be one or two magnitudes larger than “some”.

    This change would seem to produce much more space activity per dollar, but as long as everybody is working on the SLS, the original spending is not producing much productive activity, and the Starship missions NASA purchased don’t have very interesting payloads because almost all of NASA’s money is being spent on a rocket they don’t need (it’s become redundant) and rarely launch.

    In that case, it would make sense to have all the NASA employees and contractors, using the same pot of money, to stop working on the giant expendable booster and instead start building useful payloads for those cheap Starship flights that NASA is buying.

    If need be, they could get highly creative and say they’re modifying SLS into a super-capable cryo upper stage that will reach LEO with no payload at all, but get fueled up by Starship LH2 deliveries, and then hurl the ISS to Jupiter or Neptune. That’ll buy the program another 20 years of development.

  3. If you look out on the internet there are ‘experts’ that will provide answers for these questions in plain and simple terms. I would honestly answer: ‘it depends’.

    In addition to embracing the sunk cost fallacy, many other ways government operates distorts costs and where they come from. This prevents good decision making and prevents the people paying the cost from being able to asses whether or not anything is worth what is being spent.

    As a government agency, the costs of NASA are justified through ideology and are largely irrelevant. That isn’t to say SpaceX isn’t driven by ideology but they have to deal with the reality that they don’t print their own money and the market signals allow them to make better decisions.

    What is the cost of a Falcon Heavy? It isn’t all the money SpaceX has ever spent divided by the number of flights. I suspect that when SpaceX assigns other costs they do so in a way to reduce complexity and to simplify the decision making process. Running a business is a lot more straight forward, even in an corrupt industry.

  4. I have no illusions about politics in this country, and even without a Marxist Progressive takeover, I could see corrupt politics as usual simply stopping Musk from conducting independent manned space flight, to Mars or anywhere else.

    That said, having been taken over by OldSpace, I could see NASA adopting SuperHeavy/Starship as a reusable Saturn V down the road. Unrefueled, the Chomper variant can put 44 tons through TLI and itself into a free return trajectory, so it could drop off something like an Apollo stack on its way round the Moon.

    I assume by the time that happens Musk will be squirreled away in a cage at Area 51.

    1. I agree. I’m glad he wrote it. Having worked at NASA, I have associates (Friends according to Facebook) posting about how they haven’t done anything because they never get funded enough. I could even sense that storyline in Wayne Hale’s article. The people I know read Berger, and that’s got to burn.

      Musk is building flying water towers in open air. NASA wouldn’t do such a thing without enclosing the area needed + 50% and then making it a class 1 cleanroom. And that’s Wayne Hale’s infrastructure that is part of the $5 billion supposedly necessary.

  5. Allotting fixed costs is always problematic. The VAB needing a coat of paint is an excellent example, as is the 747 for Shuttle transport.

    Fixed costs (workforce, facilities, etc) are especially bad for a low flight rate system, such as SLS, or for that matter, Falcon Heavy. In the case of the latter, it’s mostly using F9 facilities, but SLS will have a dedicated massive support force. The cost of that will be enormous, and as near as I can tell is not included in the 2 billion per figure.

  6. As a small part of the total cost structure for STS, the 747 cost the initial purchase price plus the modifications, crew, operational, and maintenance costs from purchase to scrapping of the airframe. Then divide this total by 135 launches, and you get an accurate number. Just because NASA doesn’t want to admit how high this number is does not mean it is difficult to find. It had no other use. None others will pay for it.
    Now, to find out how much each SLS launch will cost, launch one, then get back to me. Otherwise, you are dividing total cost by zero, and even I know what that gives you.

    1. Good point.

      If you had a spacecraft that needed to land at Edwards, but that spacecraft could be broken down into portions to be trucked cross-country, you would hire a trucking company, or an airfreight company with planes that could swallow truck-trailer-sized loads. Because either of those options are common carriers that carry other stuff for hire when not carrying your gear, you have high utilization of the truck/airfreighter and pay for only your portion of that use.

      If you have a spacecraft that cannot be broken down but rather needs that custom 747, the whole 747 is against your budget because their is no other use for the thing, even if, especially if you bought that service from a private company.

      Of course, if you were a LEO space common carrier and could drum up business to sustain a high flight rate, the percent usage of the custom 747 per flight would drop. It is an economy-of-scale that applies to any capital investment. But it didn’t work out that way.

      If it didn’t work out that way for a private concern, that private concern would go out of business, and their banks along with their shareholders would write off the money they put into the venture. They would be more wary next time there is a fancy pitch on PowerPoint of someone having a scheme to open up access to LEO and beyond.

      Here, the Feral Gum Mint works by different rules for a variety of technical and social reasons. That the Shuttle kept going for so long is an example of a Failure of Socialism. I am not a doctrinaire Libertarian and regard there are circumstances that you go with Socialism and accept its consequences. But this doesn’t change the fact that the per-flight cost of the 747 is the total cost of the thing divided by the number of flights, whether this path is chosen by Socialism or by Capitalism.

  7. Idle thought: if you launch a 9m Starship atop an 18m HyperHeavy, it will reach LEO almost fully fueled. HyperHeavy will need steering vanes and heat shield tiles as it will be landing a long ways down range (15,000km?). But it’s 4x SuperHeavy, without the complexities of trimaran (whose core would also be on a long, hot trajectory). I wonder if Diego Garcia would be a good initial landing site (from which you could fuel it up, throw on a temporary nosecone and launch it homewards)?

  8. It occurs to me that if the cost per flight of the shuttle was 2 billion dollars, and the cost of an orbiter was 2 billion dollars, they could have built 20 orbiters and actually achieved that promised once-a-week flight rate, and ended up with more than a thousand launches for the same total cost. They’d have been able to bring the marginal cost of launch way down. And there probably wouldn’t be a SpaceX today, because Musk wouldn’t have needed to start the company.

      1. My understanding is, the Apollo heritage infrastructure facilities (VAB, LC-39A/B, etc.) would have maxed out at 17 launches per year. Plug in the annual STS program budget, the known gas and go cost of STS (of which there was only one example, a reflight) and you get a per flight cost bottoming out at $435mln, which is not terrible for the capability. What that suggests to me is, the real failing of STS was not developing a cargo/payload/mission containerization system. Pack it up in a separate facility, tow it to the pad, stuff it in the payload bay, and fly. The calculated costs of STS missions were partly due to payload cost being folded in, and partly due to low flight rate. And I have no idea what the actual flight costs of SLS would be at 17 launches per year. But it’d be higher than Starship.

  9. William Barton, look at landing your HyperHeavy at Woomera, South Australia. Former rocket range and space launch site and hardly anyone around for hundreds of kilometers.

  10. Taking NASA’s own inflation-adjusted estimate of what it cost to develop and fly the Shuttle for 30 years, the price per mission comes out to about $1.6 billion. That’s money the government actually spent, one way or another, to make the thing and/or keep it flying.

    Mr. Hale does a nice job of dodging around this reality and even, by implication, defending the perverse political and bureaucratic incentives that preclude ever actually reducing expenses or headcounts on government programs. But, at the end of the day, the taxpayers were on the hook for over $200 billion in inflation-adjusted expense for Shuttle development and 30 years of ops.

    The government paid for part of Dragon 1’s and Falcon 9 v1.0’s development and a bigger part of Dragon 2’s development. But every dime spent on Falcon 9’s continued development, Falcon Heavy’s development and SHS’s development has come in the form of checks signed by one Elon Musk.

    There’s the entirety of the difference between what SpaceX needs to spend to develop and fly something and what NASA needs to do the same – or, as is actually the case anent SLS, vastly less. Elon is playing for keeps with his own money. NASA is just playing.

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