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Space The Almighty Buck

Estimating SpaceX's Reusable Rocket Cost Savings (theverge.com) 163

An anonymous reader writes: On Monday, SpaceX successfully landed its Falcon 9 rocket after launching a group of satellites into orbit. It's a huge breakthrough for the commercial space industry, because reusing rockets will dramatically reduce launch costs. The question now is: by how much? Elon Musk says it takes $60 million to build the Falcon 9, and $200,000 to fuel it. That's a big difference, but we can't expect them to immediately launch the rocket again after refueling it.

"The Falcon 9 experiences major temperature changes during its flights, as well as intense pressures and vibrations from the winds in the atmosphere. These all produce wear-and-tear on the vehicle's hardware — meaning the rocket might need repairs and updates before it can launch again." This kind of refurbishing is why the Space Shuttle ended up being way more expensive than expected. Fortunately, the Falcon 9 is not nearly as complex.

This is now the true test of SpaceX's design talents; if the rocket is built to be durable, then repairs and replacements could keep relaunch costs very low indeed. Steve Poulus, a former NASA project manager, suspects final costs could be driven below a million dollars. That figure would give SpaceX the capability of easily underbidding any competitor for government contracts, not to mention bringing it into affordability for any number of companies who'd like to put a satellite in orbit.

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Estimating SpaceX's Reusable Rocket Cost Savings

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  • Reliability (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Still, there are obstacles. SpaceX still needs to demonstrate the ability to consistently produce and launch rockets many times a year after the June accident caused an unexpected, six-month setback, something it will do with several flights planned for the weeks ahead.

    Just because it's relatively cheap to use Space X, if I have a 50-50 ( better or worse) chance that my $100 million satellite that took several years to design and build is going to get blown up, I'll pass.

    • Conventional lift systems also explode. It takes a fair amount of explosive power to put something into orbit, so the danger is ever-present. All payloads are insured as well. So given the choice, I'll go with the sub-million dollar launch.

      The money, while significant, is not the greatest cost of an explosion. It's the time it takes to build a new satellite and get in on the next launch window. That could potentially force you to miss your opportunity in the marketplace.

      First rule of government spending: wh

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Conventional lift systems also explode.

        Of course they do. But the point is how often. And Space X has a very small track record and as it stands now, it's dismal.

        It's the time it takes to build a new satellite and get in on the next launch window. That could potentially force you to miss your opportunity in the marketplace.

        That's dot com thinking. Businesses that are actually concerned with profitability and ROI think a bit differently. Meaning a couple of weeks - maybe months - late to market - assuming the Ruskies or the EU couldn't get me up there - is MUCH better than eating $100 million bucks and the years it took to develop the satellite.

        • Re: Reliability (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          You're gratuitously abusing statistics viz. track record, and you know it.

          SpaceX actually has a far better track record at this point in general rocket dynamics and development than NASA or Arianespace, and though I haven't checked, I am reasonably certain that is true for any of the various space transportation outfits that have ever existed in the entire (brief) spacefaring history of man.

          By the way, if you aren't willing to entrust your satellite to the tender mercies of the current state of technology,

          • Because his arguments match all of about 0% with reality he's probably one of those "I don't like the private sector because megacorps are evil and therefore the government does it best" types who have been reading too many cyberpunk novels in his parent's basement. They've been coming out of the woodwork a lot since SpaceX made a pretty historic spaceflight achievement.

      • Satellites don't have to deal with launch windows that much. That's more for interplanetary systems. Sats do have launch windows, they just come very frequently. Weather is more of a concern.

    • Launch insurance. And their rate is much better then 50-50.

    • Re:Reliability (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TWX ( 665546 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @12:00PM (#51182149)

      Still, there are obstacles. SpaceX still needs to demonstrate the ability to consistently produce and launch rockets many times a year after the June accident caused an unexpected, six-month setback, something it will do with several flights planned for the weeks ahead.

      Just because it's relatively cheap to use Space X, if I have a 50-50 ( better or worse) chance that my $100 million satellite that took several years to design and build is going to get blown up, I'll pass.

      I fully expect that they'll have a tiered price structure. First, the cost of a brand-new launch won't have to be $60,000,000+ if they expect to launch the rocket again. Obviously it'll be the most expensive and will probably see the most use for the most critical launches and for manned-launches once they're man-rated, but if they expect to launch the same rocket assembly a half-dozen times then that launch might cost $20,000,000 or $30,000,000, or less than half of the cost of a one-flight rocket. Limited-reuse rockets might fetch $10,000,000 to $20,000,000 dollars for important but not absolutely critical launches where budget is important but so are timetables, and less than $10,000,000 for launches on older rockets where the loss of payload isn't that big of a deal, like replacing GPS satellites or dealing with routine communications satellite replacement over time.

      If this comes to pass, even if a customer insists on brand-new rockets for their launches, so long as there are customers interested in budget launches, the first launches will get cheaper.

      • Re:Reliability (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 25, 2015 @12:39PM (#51182261)

        Satellites don't inherently have to be that expensive, the only reason they are is that you can't afford to launch another one when the one you have fails. Because launches are so expensive it makes sense to sink money into making the sat as reliable and long living as possible. If launches were free you could whip up a functional comms sat for thousands or tens of thousand and if one fails just lob another one. The cost of payload depends on launch cost, with half the launch cost you can make the sat half as reliable, for half the cost and just lob two of them.

        • by TWX ( 665546 )
          Yep. It's kind of like why nearly all cars in Singapore are high-end luxury cars- the parking spaces cost something like $150,000 a year. They're so expensive that if you can afford the parking space it's not an issue to put a $100,000 car in it. Same with upbuilding a limo- if it's $50,000 to cut up a sedan and turn it into a limo then there's not a lot of reason to start with a Chevrolet at $30,000 compared to a Cadillac at $50,000.
          • Yep. It's kind of like why nearly all cars in Singapore are high-end luxury cars- the parking spaces cost something like $150,000 a year. They're so expensive that if you can afford the parking space it's not an issue to put a $100,000 car in it. Same with upbuilding a limo- if it's $50,000 to cut up a sedan and turn it into a limo then there's not a lot of reason to start with a Chevrolet at $30,000 compared to a Cadillac at $50,000.

            Your parking lot analogy has another facet. If we make satellites disposable, we better have good ways to get them out of the way if they fail. Because for as big as space is, orbital mechanics makes certain orbits, certain space real estate, very desirable, and you'll find them in those orbits. So if we're throwing up relatively unreliable sats, we better have a very reliable way to get them out of the desireable orbits when they quickly fail.

            Plus When you get outside of the earth's atmosphere, you reall

        • It also makes sense to keep adding capabilities and longevity until your satellite costs a lot more than the launch price.

          A company that launches something into space faces the same sort of thinking that you face when you want to order something online when shipping isn't included in the price. If shipping is $15 you are probably not going to buy something that costs $30. If you really need to order the $30 item then you are going to be strongly tempted to order additional items that you think you might wan

        • Satellites don't inherently have to be that expensive, the only reason they are is that you can't afford to launch another one when the one you have fails. Because launches are so expensive it makes sense to sink money into making the sat as reliable and long living as possible. If launches were free you could whip up a functional comms sat for thousands or tens of thousand and if one fails just lob another one. The cost of payload depends on launch cost, with half the launch cost you can make the sat half as reliable, for half the cost and just lob two of them.

          Satellites and their launches are expensive because they are expensive.

      • I'm waiting for a 'slightly used' one to show up on e-bay. Then we'll know that the technology has arrived.

      • For a while, customers will pay extra for a brand new booster. Eventually, SpaceX will have to offer a discount to persuade customers to trust their payload to a rocket on its maiden flight.
      • Is a new rocket really the best option for a manned or otherwise critical launch? Wouldn't you rather be on the rocket's second or third ride up instead of the first?

        • IANARS, and I'm not denying you have a point, but I think there's a lot of vibration inside a rocket. Some of it chaotic, some of it periodic. Sooner or later that vibration's going to shake something loose. Could be a fuel line weld, could be a lot of things. The longer the rocket fires (and the more times it starts up), the more likely it is that something's going to break next time.

          There's also the issue of testing, because testing can cause something to break that was working before. That's what ha

          • Yep, that's true. I suppose only time will tell if new rockets actually turn out to be more reliable than used, or even any statistical difference at all. The great thing about recovering the rocket like they do is that they can perform post-flight structural analyses on the entire system and strengthen / reinforce any components that appear to be suffering more stress because of the repeated launches.

            When safety is prioritized, humans can actually build highly complex machines that are put under signific

    • How much does your $100 million satellite cost per-unit if you build five of them, instead? If a launch also costs $100 million, you might not bother, but if a launch costs $1million, would it be worth it to build enough to have a reasonable chance of success across several launches?

      • by arth1 ( 260657 )

        Also, how much of the $60 million that the stage costs is due to the extra hardware/software and special parts needed for making it possible to land it again?
        And how much more fuel do you burn?
        And how much more expensive it is per unit when they build fewer units because they re-use them?

        The space shuttle program ended up being extremely expensive compared to rocket launches.

        • Re:Reliability (Score:5, Insightful)

          by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @03:17PM (#51182747) Homepage

          The space shuttle program ended up being extremely expensive compared to rocket launches.

          The Shuttle was the poster child for how NOT to do reusable. Government spec with 10 mission requirements orthogonal to each other, half of which are not technically possible at time of design while development is spread out over ever ZIP code in the country.

          Elon can't be dumber than Congress. Unpossible.

          • Correction: Elon can't be dumber than Congress and the Air Force put together.

            I suppose, however, that this would be damning by faint praise.

          • The space shuttle program ended up being extremely expensive compared to rocket launches.

            The Shuttle was the poster child for how NOT to do reusable. Government spec with 10 mission requirements orthogonal to each other, half of which are not technically possible at time of design while development is spread out over ever ZIP code in the country.

            Elon can't be dumber than Congress. Unpossible.

            My family has had the same broom for five generations. We use it daily.

            Sure, we occasionally replace the bristles. And yes, other times, we replace the handle. But it is the same broom that my ancestors used!

        • Also, how much of the $60 million that the stage costs is due to the extra hardware/software and special parts needed for making it possible to land it again?

          Must be a negligible amount, since they're the cheapest on the market already and the intent of reuse was built into their designs from the beginning.

          And how much more fuel do you burn?

          It's safe to assume the additional fuel cost in $ is 5 digits, so negligible compared to the other costs involved in space flight.

          And how much more expensive it is per u

      • How much does your $100 million satellite cost per-unit if you build five of them, instead? If a launch also costs $100 million, you might not bother, but if a launch costs $1million, would it be worth it to build enough to have a reasonable chance of success across several launches?

        Not only that, but the fact that it cost a fraction to launch will make make it worthwhile to build super cheap satellites, made of everyday junk electronics. The way it works today is like since it is so expensive to launch, you are basically forced to build a very expensive satellite to go with it. 1 million dollar launch means thousands of universities could send out space based telescopes, by them selves using off-the-shelf hardware.

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        How much does your $100 million satellite cost per-unit if you build five of them, instead? If a launch also costs $100 million, you might not bother, but if a launch costs $1million, would it be worth it to build enough to have a reasonable chance of success across several launches?

        Depends on the nature of the satellite, I would think. Like the mirrors for space telescopes are ridiculously expensive high-precision work where building a spare just in case is out of the question. Other satellites are designed to be part of a series like the GPS satellites, where you're already doing some form of serial production and extras can be kept as spares or used to retire existing satellites early. And then you probably have some in between, where they're fairly ordinary but you don't really nee

        • How much does your $100 million satellite cost per-unit if you build five of them, instead? If a launch also costs $100 million, you might not bother, but if a launch costs $1million, would it be worth it to build enough to have a reasonable chance of success across several launches?

          Depends on the nature of the satellite, I would think. Like the mirrors for space telescopes are ridiculously expensive high-precision work where building a spare just in case is out of the question.

          What is not known by many, is that there is another, and rather flawless Hubble Telescope mirror made by Eastman Kodak.

          http://airandspace.si.edu/coll... [si.edu]

          It's an interesting subject. I could have found the problem with the Perkin Elmer mirror withan led and a 5 dollar home made tester. It was a shameful thing that the good mirror is sitting in a museum on earth, while the flawed one has cost so many millions to fix.

    • Re:Reliability (Score:4, Informative)

      by swillden ( 191260 ) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Friday December 25, 2015 @01:11PM (#51182355) Homepage Journal

      Just because it's relatively cheap to use Space X, if I have a 50-50 ( better or worse) chance that my $100 million satellite that took several years to design and build is going to get blown up, I'll pass.

      SpaceX has launched 20 times, with one failure. So, that's a 5% chance of loss, not 50%, assuming they maintain this success rate.

      • SpaceX has launched a previously launched vertically self-landing rocket exactly zero times, so statistics is not going to provide anything in the probabilities department. "Assuming they maintain this success rate" is a rather big assumption.

        • SpaceX has launched a previously launched vertically self-landing rocket exactly zero times, so statistics is not going to provide anything in the probabilities department. "Assuming they maintain this success rate" is a rather big assumption.

          Did you read the thread? The claim was that there was a 50% chance of complete loss of the cargo. But SpaceX has launched 20 Falcon 9s, and only lost one. The fact that this is only the fourth time they attempted to land the first stage, and the first time they succeeded, is completely orthogonal to the question of cargo survival, because that has nothing to do with the landability of the first stage.

          • Yes, I can read. The idea about the (presumably randomly chosen) 50/50 number, should be that there may be a higher risk associated with a launch in which the first stage is reused (and thus perhaps less reliable if the landing damaged the stage in some way which is not correctly identified and/or handled in preparing it for reuse), rather than using a new one. If the first stage blows up before separation, the payload is lost. For an example, search for "Ariane 5 first launch".

            Kind of like you would not be

    • by eth1 ( 94901 )

      Just because it's relatively cheap to use Space X, if I have a 50-50 ( better or worse) chance that my $100 million satellite that took several years to design and build is going to get blown up, I'll pass.

      Well, it kind of depends on your mission and payload. If you have a really expensive one-of-a-kind payload, I'm sure you can still specify you want a new boost stage. It will cost more, but since it can be recovered, probably still not as much as a throw-away one.

      On the other hand, say you're someone like, oh, Orbcomm, that's launching tons of tiny satellites in multiple launches. Over several launches required to get a constellation into orbit, the cost of a single lost payload might actually be less than

    • Still, there are obstacles. SpaceX still needs to demonstrate the ability to consistently produce and launch rockets many times a year after the June accident caused an unexpected, six-month setback, something it will do with several flights planned for the weeks ahead.

      Just because it's relatively cheap to use Space X, if I have a 50-50 ( better or worse) chance that my $100 million satellite that took several years to design and build is going to get blown up, I'll pass.

      So I'm guessing (and I'm more or less an interested layman here) it would depend o the cost of the payload. Even if reusable rockets turn out to be less reliable, they'd still open up new possibilities IF they're substantially cheaper. If cheaper launches become available, that opens the market up for new, less expensive types of payloads that nobody would've thought of before. If your payload costs two million dollars to build (and to build again if you lose one), you'd probably launch it with the one-mill

    • That $100 million satellite is that expensive, since the launch cost has been so high. Because once you get the satellite up it has to work for years flawlessly or you cannot make up for that launch cost. If the launch cost is $1 million, you can launch all sorts of cheap hardware instead, since losing it means very little in comparison.
    • It costs you 100 million to make the first one. After that they should be pretty cheap. So make a few.

    • by crbowman ( 7970 )

      Yes, but at $1million are you still going to build $100 million satellites? Perhaps you'd build a 10x$1million satellites with an estimated life time of 2 years, and spend $1million every 2 years to replace it (presumably with a lighter better performing version?). I don't know what a launch costs for $100 million satellite but assuming the dedicated rocket costs $60million your total cost is $160 million. If you change this so the total cost is now $101 million, it seems to be that you launches don't ha

    • Still, there are obstacles. SpaceX still needs to demonstrate the ability to consistently produce and launch rockets many times a year after the June accident caused an unexpected, six-month setback, something it will do with several flights planned for the weeks ahead.

      Just because it's relatively cheap to use Space X, if I have a 50-50 ( better or worse) chance that my $100 million satellite that took several years to design and build is going to get blown up, I'll pass.

      One could make the argument, especially during the earlier launches, that using a rocket that has been tested three or four times already might give more reliability, and not less. Time will tell.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 25, 2015 @11:37AM (#51182083)

    The wear mechanisms are poorly understood and this compounds the difficulty of predicting the reliability of launches. Only time will tell if the Falcon technology can operate more reliably than the historic 1-2% failure rate. I am not optimistic. A 1% catastrophic failure rate is nothing to boast about, even for a reusable launcher.

    • by XXongo ( 3986865 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @11:59AM (#51182143) Homepage
      Exactly. The question of how much reusability will lower costs depends critically on how expensive it is to refurbish, as well as how much performance you trade off to save delta-V for landing the stage.

      This is complicated somewhat by the fact that rocket engines have significant economy of scale in production: if you reuse each one, say, ten times, your production rate is ten times lower, so the engines are more expensive.

      So it's not completely obvious how much savings you get. It seems pretty clear you get some. But how much?

      • Why would you want to cut your production rate? Both reusability and economy of scale are essential in cutting launch costs. SpaceX ought to be working on internal projects that can use any excess launch capacity until there are enough customers, though, preferably ones that will help further the business. (Like electric space tugs and refueling / repair / refurbishment drones)

    • Reliability is unknown by YOU and I. BUT, SpaceX already has a clue of what it will take. The question is, have they over or under estimated. Keep in mind that Musk HAS actually under estimated before. His first rocket blew up for a reason. In addition, he thought that a simple parachute would enable him to capture the first stage. Both were failures. Thankfully, he changed his approach.

      I suspect that SpaceX has over estimated this and these will likely do at least 10 launches without much fix up. The qu
      • Well, he's trying to find a way to reduce costs of space launches. That means testing the limits of what corners he can cut on equipment and still have the rockets complete their goals reliably. Except for the rocket that exploded on takeoff, all of the launch missions have been a success, it's just the after completion recovery tests were failures until now. Now they are taking apart the safely landed booster to see what damage it sustained during the round trip so they can see what they need to refurbi

  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @11:39AM (#51182091)

    1) The first stage is 2/3 the total cost to launch. Which would be $40 million.

    2) They can renovate the first stage for $5 million.

    3) They can get five launches from a first stage (original plus four more).

    So, $60 million for five launches, plus the $20 million for the second stage x5.

    Which comes to $32 million per launch. A bit more than half the current price.

    Now, I consider those pessimistic assumptions.

    Alternately...

    If we replace (3) with 15 launches per first stage, we get $28M per.

    If we replace (2) with $1M per launch, we get $29M for five launches, $23.75 per launch for 15 launches.

    Big picture: reusing the first stage only will allow them to drop prices by 40-60%.

    Now, if they can reuse the second stage also, we're talking some real money....

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "Big picture: reusing the first stage only will allow them to drop prices by 40-60%."

      Yeah. Only. Considering the sums, that's clearly small potatoes and hardly worth mentioning..

    • by XXongo ( 3986865 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @12:20PM (#51182203) Homepage
      Suppose:

      1) The first stage is 2/3 the total cost to launch. Which would be $40 million.
      2) They can renovate the first stage for $5 million.
      3) They can get five launches from a first stage (original plus four more).
      So, $60 million for five launches, plus the $20 million for the second stage x5.

      Which comes to $32 million per launch. A bit more than half the current price.

      Now, I consider those pessimistic assumptions.

      Interesting numbers. Let's try a variant case. Suppose in addition:
      You're assuming that the non-reusable launch vehicle cost per launch is $60M. OK, let's start out by assuming 1/3 of that is fixed costs and operations costs, and 2/3 the vehicle cost, which is split evenly between the two stages (first stage is larger, but not proportionately more expensive). So, of the $60 million, $40 million is spent even if the vehicle first stage was free.
      Now assume that re-usability increases the launch cost by, say, $5 million (launch operations are expensive! and the cost is not entirely the vehicle).
      Assume that all the stuff needed to make the first stage reusable increases the stage cost by 25%, from $20M to $25M.
      And assume that the delta-V and the added mass to do the fly-back decreases payload by 10%, and that the price you sell the launch for decreases a similar percentage (some payloads won't care, but some will.)

      economics are much less clear now. The first stage cost drops with refurbishment from $20M to $6M, but the total launch cost only drops from $60M to $51M, whereas the price you can sell the launch for drops from $60M to $54M.

      Still an economic advantage... but only a few percent advantage.

      • Interesting numbers. Let's try a variant case. Suppose in addition: You're assuming that the non-reusable launch vehicle cost per launch is $60M. OK, let's start out by assuming 1/3 of that is fixed costs and operations costs, and 2/3 the vehicle cost, which is split evenly between the two stages (first stage is larger, but not proportionately more expensive). So, of the $60 million, $40 million is spent even if the vehicle first stage was free. Now assume that re-usability increases the launch cost by, say, $5 million (launch operations are expensive! and the cost is not entirely the vehicle). Assume that all the stuff needed to make the first stage reusable increases the stage cost by 25%, from $20M to $25M. And assume that the delta-V and the added mass to do the fly-back decreases payload by 10%, and that the price you sell the launch for decreases a similar percentage (some payloads won't care, but some will.)

        First off, the current cost of the rocket already includes the costs to do reusibilty, so the cost of the first stage will not increase- it is designed be reused up to 10 times right now with no change in hardware.

        Secondly, the cost of the 2 stages are not even remotely close to equal; the first stage has 9 Merlin engines, the second stage only has 1. An estimate of 6 to 1 (first to second) for costs would be more reasonable.

        Thirdly, the payloads currently quoted already include reusability (16MT to LEO and 4.5MT to GTO). No loss of earnings there.

        So none your variant assumptions are useful for this discussion.

        Let's look at some other factors you haven't considered.

        Like the space shuttle, SpaceX now has a rocket for examination that has flown a full mission and hasn't had a 6G salt water landing. This means that they will be able to do full engineering analysis on what stresses the rocket actually experienced during a flight event that increase all steps necessary for re-use. The results of that analysis will allow them to determine what parts of the rocket need to be enhanced or reduced to meet the 10 tens re-use goal. SpaceX has the luxury of being to make changes to their rocket without Congressional approval, so this information can be used immediately to improve the vehicle. The design goal of the Falcon is that the rocket need not be "refurbished" after every flight, just put through some standard flight maintenance tests. Having the flown stages available for analysis will help them to meet this goal.

        Additionally, SpaceX currently has launch costs based on 6 launches a year. As they have already demonstrated the ability to launch with a cadence of 2 weeks several times, being able to increase their launch rate to a minimum of 1 a month will cut their overall costs per launch.

        Let's assume that a slight redesign based on analysis of real-world data let's them increase reliability of the Falcon 9 to 1 in 100 and increase the payload by 1MT to GTO. At 5.5MT to GTO, this let's them handle 90% of all GTO launches (6MT is at the current top end for commercial satellites to GeoSynchronous orbits) with the reuable design. 5MT is compable to $137M Ariane 5 capbility or $132M for an Atlas 5 launch for NASA with both the throw weight and reliability requirements necessary to get these flights.

        $60M to launch the current, reusable Falcon 9 1.1FT.
        33% is launch cost. - $20M
        56% is first stage - $34M
        11% is the second stage $6M

        Assumption 1: increase in flight rate reduces launch costs by 25%
        Assumption 2: landing/recovery/flight readiness check costs $5M a launch
        Assumption 3: 10 flights reuse of the first stage = $3.5M a launch

        Under these assumptions:
        Launch cost $15M
        Landing/recovery/checks $5M
        First stage $3.5M
        Second Stage: $6M

        Total: $29.5M

        I'm OK with those numbers given what they can charge and how quickly they can do regular launches. Where they will really rake in the cash is for a Facon Heavy launch (same vehicle with 3 first stages instead of 1) with 56MT to LEO for an asking price of $110M and a cost, by these assumptions of $35M. They could even reduce their price after a few launches of the Heavy to $56M, and start launching bulk cargo to space at a rate of $1000/Kg

        • by XXongo ( 3986865 )
          You are stating assumptions that are plausible... but you don't actually know any of those things. You are making figures up, based on some very non-technical press-release figures. What you are making up is plausible. But it is still guesswork.

          As with most things, the devil is in the details... and you don't have the details.

          You are right, however, that with different (but also plausible) assumptions, you can come up with very different results.

          • by dlapine ( 131282 )

            Actually, I do know these things, but didn't bother to include all the sources, given it being Christmas and all. Since you are so insistent about it though...

            Points 1 & 3 are taken from direct quotes by Elon Musk
            Point 2 is taken from the design of the Falcon 9, available at spacex or nearby wikipedia.
            "re-use without refurbishment" another direct E. Musk quote.

            Spacex current launch rate (6 per year) and cadence and published launch costs and satellite weights for commercial space companies are just a

        • The boost stage is roughly 70% of the cost of a launch. So, if we're able to reuse it and refly it with minimal work between flights, and customers are comfortable with that - and it might take a few years for customers to get comfortable with that - then obviously there's as much as - ultimately - a 70% reduction from where things are today. - Elon Musk

          http://shitelonsays.com/transcript/spacex-press-conference-at-the-national-press-club-2014-04-25

          So even with launch and other non-stage-specific costs f
    • Exactly this. What you are describing is the economic equivalent of Amdahl's law [wikipedia.org] for speedup of using parallel computing: even with infinite parallelism (infinite reuse), theoretical minimal costs are dominated by non-parallelizable computation (per launch costs). Elon keeps repeating the talking point that fuel is cheap so launches can be 100x cheaper. This ignores recurring costs of launch operations, manpower, non recoverable 2nd stage, inspections and repairs. Still, lowering costs by a factor 2-3 would
    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      The cost saving will only be determined with practice. One reason the Space Shuttle was a not as successful as hoped was because the SRB likely resulted in no cost savings because most parts did not survive, and the only thing that reused was the shell. Likewise the shuttle itself essentially had to be rebuilt.

      This will be same thing. How much of the avionics, pumps, etc, can survive launch and landing. How much more does it cost to produce these items so they can survive. How much does it costs to re

      • How much of the avionics, pumps, etc, can survive launch and landing.

        If they didn't survive the launch, the missions would have ended before orbit. And the beauty of the rocket powered, vertical landing is that the booster is being subjected to the same forces that it was designed to handle during launch - a kick in the tail, producing compressive loads. Those systems have essentially proven themselves even on the 'failed' attempts.

        • by fermion ( 181285 )
          Survive may have been imprecise.The difficulty, as shown with the Shuttle SRB, is knowing what is going to function well for a 2nd launch. Due the human safety factor, all components of the SRB was replaced after each launch. The challenge in this case will be to predict which components are degraded enough to require replacement, and which do not. Obviously failure is very costly, so these stoichiometrics are going to be what makes or breaks the reusability scenario.
    • First off, I suspect that first stage is a LOT more than 2/3 of costs. Much larger size. 9 engines vs. 1. the CPU/software will be comparable, but it should be minor. Has a much bigger hydraulic system to handle the rudders and legs. So, that means that first stage is probably closer to 3/4 to 80% of the costs.
      In addition, Musk has said that these are designed to go for 10 launches. Assuming that they estimate that correctly, then saving are likely around 66-75%.
      • The boost stage is roughly 70% of the cost of a launch. So, if we're able to reuse it and refly it with minimal work between flights, and customers are comfortable with that - and it might take a few years for customers to get comfortable with that - then obviously there's as much as - ultimately - a 70% reduction from where things are today. - Elon Musk

        http://shitelonsays.com/transcript/spacex-press-conference-at-the-national-press-club-2014-04-25
        • 70% of the cost of the launch is not the same thing as 70% of the costs of building it.
          So, we have been looking at this first stage costing 70% of $60 million. However, Musk may have been referring to 70% of $140 million, which is the TRUE LAUNCH COSTS. If that is the case, then a 70% reduction on this is HUGE, since it means that a launch will then be less than 40 million instead of 140 million.
    • Don't forget they are cutting costs of the booster all the time by improving on manufacturing techniques and researching new materials.

      Renovating the booster should not cost $5million. Their goal is to have it flyable within 24hrs, which means it can't cost much more than the overhead cost of having the infrastructure for a launch/landing site.
      • by XXongo ( 3986865 )

        Don't forget they are cutting costs of the booster all the time by improving on manufacturing techniques and researching new materials.

        The lower the cost of the booster, the less the financial incentive for re-use.

  • Still a lot to learn (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 25, 2015 @11:44AM (#51182097)

    The wear mechanisms are poorly understood, and this compounds the launch risk. After decades of engineering work, heavy lift boosters still have about a 1% failure rate, If SpaceX can't beat that, then there is no glorious future for manned spacefight.

    • by beltsbear ( 2489652 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @11:56AM (#51182137)

      With low enough cost 0.1% is not a problem so long as the escape systems work. They can get there.

    • by saigon_from_europe ( 741782 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @12:16PM (#51182193)

      The wear mechanisms are poorly understood

      Yes, they are, because until Monday, we had exactly 0 (zero) first-stages that have returned from their missions. Thing will change now.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      After decades of engineering work, heavy lift boosters still have about a 1% failure rate, If SpaceX can't beat that, then there is no glorious future for manned spacefight.

      Why not? It is a 1% failure rate without reusability. A 10% failure rate but with reusability means that you beat the cost of 1% failure rate by magnitudes.
      Then there is the way the Indian space programs does it. Cut down the cost enough to afford ten launches for the same cost as NASA has for one launch. With an 80% failure rate you still get more stuff up.

      Zero-tolerance is a great way to spend a lot of money without getting the results you pay for.
      I'm not saying that you want a 10% failure rate or even th

    • I disagree. The fatigue and fracture mechanics needs to be well understood just to get to this point. Now that they have recovered one that knowledge will be much better since they can inspect to see how close their analysis is. Not only will this be important for reusability but overall reliability and performance by giving better data on loads. For example Atlantis was 5-10% lighter than Columbia because of advances and lessons learned.

  • by TheReaperD ( 937405 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @11:48AM (#51182115)

    Elon Musk and company have been making huge achievements and seems one of the few people in industry to take the long view of things and it's likely to pay off in the end even though the MBAs hate him at the moment.

    I, for one, welcome our new Martian overloard!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Pretty much every mature industrial process takes a certain loss into consideration. If you know that 5% of manufactured goods fail then it might be cheaper to just make more of them and throw a few away to get to the desired amount rather than improve your manufacturing process.

    If you are just going to use the rocket to send supplies then the cost of the payload might be insignificant.
    At that point it might be worth to consider if it is cheaper to just risk it and reuse the rocket without checking it over.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @11:54AM (#51182129) Journal
    The 60 million cost includes the cost of manufacturing the components, inspecting them thoroughly, assembling them and inspecting and passing the assembly. They went for proven technologies and cheap materials, says the article. The rocket shell is relatively simple. The cost is in the rocket motor, the nozzle that holds the combustion products in plasma state, its cooling mechanism, pumps and controls. I am not sure how much of it can be inspected and re validated without extensive disassembly. I suspect most of the cost is in the inspection and certification of the vehicle rather than in the cost of individual components or the cost of assembling them.
    • by tlambert ( 566799 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @12:09PM (#51182169)

      The cost is in the rocket motor, the nozzle that holds the combustion products in plasma state, its cooling mechanism, pumps and controls. I am not sure how much of it can be inspected and re validated without extensive disassembly.

      I keep waiting for them to replace the nozzle with an experimental version that uses a linear aerospike. The April 10, 2001 patent will be expiring in just about 5 1/2 years now...

      • The cost is in the rocket motor, the nozzle that holds the combustion products in plasma state, its cooling mechanism, pumps and controls. I am not sure how much of it can be inspected and re validated without extensive disassembly.

        I keep waiting for them to replace the nozzle with an experimental version that uses a linear aerospike. The April 10, 2001 patent will be expiring in just about 5 1/2 years now...

        Aerospike? What about the Marlinspike? I hear it's got real Moxie.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      If they have to take it apart, then they might as well not recycle at all, cost ends up the same. But they are actually aiming to have 0 overhaul between flights maybe wash the shoot off, but that's it. Simply eyeballing the rocket from outside to make sure there is nothing obviously damaged and going for another round. The engines should enable this, they have tested them on the ground for 40 some flights without maintenance in between and they did play around with grasshopper, so they probably are not blu

    • by Arnold Reinhold ( 539934 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @12:43PM (#51182275) Homepage
      The Space Shuttle Main Engines, which push the envelope far more than SpaceX's Merlin, were reused up to 19 times. According to the Wikipedia article: "After each flight the engines would be removed from the orbiter and transferred to the Space Shuttle Main Engine Processing Facility (SSMEPF), where they would be inspected and refurbished in preparation for reuse on a subsequent flight. A total of 46 reusable RS-25 engines, each costing around US$40 million, were flown during the Space Shuttle program, with each new or overhauled engine entering the flight inventory requiring flight qualification on one of the test stands at Stennis Space Center prior to flight." There is also a chart of which engines were used on which flight. Musk and his team seem to have a clear engineering vision. This first landing of an orbital booster is just the beginning, but the potential for cutting cost to orbit through reusability is enormous.
      • No, they were completely overhauled each time with a large amount of parts replaced. Pretending it was some sort of cost effective refurbishment a la SpaceX is laughable.

    • It is a launch cost, not a total cost. It makes no sense to estimate the cost of the rocket to be divided equally among the two stages. SpaceX doesnt build the payloads, it isnt their cost. The payload is almost certainly not included in the 60M$ launch costs cited. So The main cost of the stages is the engines. there are nine in the first stage, and only one in the second. I imagine the breakdown in costs is proportional to that, rather than the 50:50 breakdown proposed above. The motor is a little
  • A quote from an NBC News story about Blue Origin [nbcnews.com], a company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, shows one of the differences between SpaceX rockets, which go into orbit, and Blue Origin rockets, which don't orbit:

    SpaceX is working to reuse rockets that are returning from the higher altitudes and faster speeds of orbital missions. "It is ... important to clear up the difference between 'space' and 'orbit'," Musk posted on Twitter. ... A rocket needs to be traveling about three times the speed of sound, or Mach 3, to reach space, but orbital missions require speeds about Mach 30, Musk said.
  • Not really (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Maury Markowitz ( 452832 ) on Friday December 25, 2015 @01:10PM (#51182349) Homepage

    "This kind of refurbishing is why the Space Shuttle ended up being way more expensive than expected"

    It was fully expected to be that expensive, the upper management simply ignored it.

    At one point when they were still considering fully reusable designs, the Phase II' candidates, management put the cost of the system at something like $100 per pound to orbit. However, they had already estimated the staffing at the Cape to be on the order of 25,000 people, which meant the payroll alone was about $500 a pound. Most estimates put the absolute lowest cost at $1000/pound. After Challenger it was over $2500, making it the most expensive launch system in US history.

    So why was management saying $100 until the end? Because the entire justification for the Shuttle was that it would be lower cost than any other system. And because of that, everyone would move their cargos to it. And since everyone moved their cargos to it, it would be launching all the time. And because it was launching all the time, the embedded payroll per launch was lower. Even then it didn't look like it could match Scout, so they came up with the Getaway Specials to try to take those, and then cancelled Scout.

    Now it was clear to everyone, including the very detailed CBO report, that if they didn't get every single payload out there, then there was no way to get the launch rates they needed to make the payroll costs go down. And as the CBO report noted, if any of those assumptions failed, it would end up being more expensive than systems like Titan. And they went on to point out that many of the payloads NASA assumed would move to the Shuttle never even existed in the first place (modular telcomsats for instance, which they just made up).

    So management lied, fully aware there was no way they could meet the numbers. And it was this precise attitude that caused the Challenger Disaster, where bad news numbers were simply ignored and replaced with ones that met political or economic criterion.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    First some background. The engineers behind modern rockets have throughout the years gotten pretty good at designing rockets that can launch successfully. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to evaluate a launched rocket to see how the predictions of the stresses have effected the rockets. This is the first orbital booster that has been successfully re-landed.

    What SpaceX is likely to do is take one of these returned boosters, strip it down, and evaluate how the stresses from launch/return have effected

  • The big reason why Falcon costs only $60 million is due to the production volume. Reuse slashes production volumes, which means the cost to produce will soar. 10 launches of disposable Falcon rockets means 100 engines built, while 10 launches of a reused Falcon will only result in 19 engines built. Cutting production volume means higher costs, so it is not a slam dunk for SpaceX.

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