Tag Archives: launch

The $62 million (and higher) question


This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

Which is worse? An advertised price many folks say can’t be true? Or an unavailable published price taxpayers are normally on the hook for?

The second question refers to the published prices SpaceX has on its website for launch services. The company makes it seem simple: $62 million starting for a Falcon 9 launch or $90 million for the new Falcon Heavy. It’s so simple, even people not following the industry can understand the pricing. And yet, there are many who say these prices can’t be true.

The third question refers to United Launch Alliance (ULA), a company that sits closer to the other end of that transparency spectrum for launch pricing. The company does have the “Rocketbuilder” site which seems as if it’s providing some insight. The site covers Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V rocket, but none of Boeing’s Delta line. And then ULA goes a bit car-sales technique on us, using the word “value” for a little obfuscation, with the price somehow diminishing as value is added. This situation is also unsatisfactory.

Why bring up both companies? They are great examples of one question the global rocket industry has attempted to obscure for a long time: how much does it cost to launch a rocket?

It’s a problem people following this industry have had to deal with for a while. Until SpaceX, launch costs have traditionally been guesses, wrapped in wikipedias, and veiled in press releases. Government launches in particular don’t highlight launch prices for reasons such as national security, contract secrecy, or maybe, perhaps, shame? Motivated people find examples of NASA/ULA contracts, like this one, listing launch services using the Delta IV Heavy. Why not just outright publish the pricing? Is it because it’s worse than we think? Would high prices get a government acquisitions SES in trouble? It certainly wouldn’t be because the prices are as low, or lower, than SpaceX’s offerings.

ULA and other U.S. companies aren’t the only ones keeping launch prices somewhat of a secret. Arianespace, China Great Wall, Japan, and India also keep prices in the shadows. Russia, does this too, except lately: the relatively new Glavkosmos launch service seems to list the price of Soyuz 2.1a/2.1b launches. Again, there is ambiguity. Is that 20-22 M supposed to be 20-22 million dollars? Ruples (not likely)?

Why talk about this? After all, if it weren’t for all these ambiguities, some of my work would be gone (and, honestly, I enjoy looking for this stuff).

It’s just to highlight the weirdness of people seeing a price that’s low, and saying it can’t be true. What’s weirder is the lack of unambiguous pricing data, period. How weird would it be if a car’s pricing depended on how far I intended to drive it? And how frustrating would it be if the pricing data would only be available after I started talking to the car salesperson, and only if I signed an agreement not to say how much said car would cost me?

Wouldn’t you rather have a baseline price for launches (the rocket Monroney) and then see all the add-ons itemized? Even then we would know that price is a fiction (you don’t pay full sticker, do you?)–but it puts us in the ballpark when we’re car-shopping.

Imagine a sticker with the base launch service pricing. Then imagine the add-ons. The equivalent of underbody rust protection, mission assurance=$40 million. Geosynchronous orbit=$20 million. Low Earth orbit would be a deal=$10 million.

Hey, maybe ULA is on to something…

However, these things are changing. Rocket Lab advertises its Electron launch service as $4.9 million. Of course there’s SpaceX with its prices. Glavkosmos may also be responding, if those numbers are indeed money values. This is also why ULA did put some of its inventory up with Rocketbuilder, “values” notwithstanding. A person can hope one day that all that needs to be done is to go online to a particular launch service provider, and just see the Monroney for its inventory. It won’t be CarMax, but it’s one small step.


Your Comrade Through Space History


Take a walk through history. Image from Roscosmos.

A friend of mine passed along this link today: http://inspacewetrust.org/en/. Before you click on it, you should have some time on your hands. This is an animated walk through history, thanks to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s a very dynamic and cool way to present some of the more important historic bits in space history.

Initially, there’s a Russian space history focus. But as the little space traveller goes along, more international missions get discovered. Really, that site is all this short blurb of a post is about, but maybe it will help make the mid-week bearable for some of you.

If you are Russian, learning Russian, or have Russian friends, you can go directly to: http://inspacewetrust.org/. Either site is pretty nifty, maybe proving that it doesn’t matter the language–space is just fun.

P.S.: Don’t forget to move the mouse around on the initial load screen. The spacewalking cosmonaut is more than a pretty picture.

Landing the Business of Launch


The history-making Falcon 9 Upgrade ready to launch at Space Launch Complex 40. Image from SpaceX.

SpaceX was very confident that today’s successful landing would happen. Instead of hedging the outcome as they had in previous launches, statements from people within the company before the launch today indicated that today was the day. And today was their day.

I’m assuming you’ve seen the footage of the Falcon 9’s first stage landing on a barge, and–and this is the most important part–staying upright and intact. If not, you should really watch the video, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEr9cPpuAx8. To see the rocket land, on a barge, is pretty nifty.

But after today, what will happen? Does the launch industry change? Does it get cheaper? Well, not right away. Some of it depends on whether SpaceX can just get down to the business of launching. According to SpaceFlightNow.com’s launch manifest, SpaceX has at least 11 other launches to clear this year. That’s quite a few, but perhaps not impossible to accomplish. But the company has barely launched slightly over half that number so far in the past few years. There’s also the possible launch of their Falcon Heavy, promised for many years but yet to make it past artist conceptions into reality.

SpaceX also must prove the Falcon 9’s first stage is reusable. Landing it on a barge is awesome, but how quickly can they turn it around and use it again? Blue Origin, another rocket manufacturer and potential launch provider, is kind of setting the standard with their New Shepard suborbital rocket. The company launched the same rocket and engine three times, supposedly with minimal inspections of the whole thing in-between. The average turn-around for their rocket seems to be about a month and a half. In fact, Blue Origin’s third launch of New Shepard occurred just last weekend, on April 2. Of course, they have a pretty cool video to watch as well: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/news/pushing-the-envelope.

Can SpaceX match or exceed Blue Origin’s turnaround time? How often will a reusable stage be reusable? Whatever the answer, there are quite a few companies ready to buy a berth on a reusable rocket. There’re a lot of plans and pressure for launch services. More importantly, there are markets hungry for the services and products coming from space. The price of a space launch needs to come down. SpaceX is one of the cheaper launch providers, and if it, or Blue Origin, or someone else, succeeds in incorporating a reusable space launch vehicle in their business, prices will, after a while, start falling.

But, while SpaceX deservedly got their time in the limelight today, tomorrow they need to do one thing: launch!

And then launch some more…


Spinning Right Round


The Agena Target Vehicle, viewed from Gemini VIII. Image from JSC Digital Image Collection.

This is my latest article for the Space Foundation’s monthly “Space Watch.” If you didn’t know, I’ve been writing a series of articles, once a month, since I started working for the Space Foundation in 2014. The series highlights all the activities leading up to the first Apollo lunar mission, including some Gemini missions and tests.

In this particular article, NASA’s astronauts not only attempt the second ever rendezvous of spacecraft in Earth’s orbit, they also give a shot at docking (actually physically connecting) two spacecraft in orbit. It was a very ambitious mission, and as is the way of the world, not everything went as planned. Here it is: Rendezvous Re-do Revolution. And don’t forget to read some of the other Foundation articles in “Space Watch.”


Moving Big Things with, um, Big Things?

It’s been a fairly hectic few weeks with not so much spare time–relatives were visiting. Which is great, but didn’t leave much for posts. For now, I leave you all with another of my Apollo 50th Anniversary Moment posts for the Space Foundation’s Space Watch.

The crawler-transporter is what carried the Apollo Saturn V rockets, and the Space Shuttle–as seen above. Image from NASA.

I know everyone else posted about going to the moon 46 years ago, which is a milestone. And I’ll get there, but the whole idea is to talk about what happened 50 years ago. Which is why I wrote about the NASA crawler-transporter and a potential issue they faced that might have stopped the whole Apollo program.

Here’s a little bit about the crawler-transporters in: Speeding to a Crawl. If you enjoy articles like that, you can dig through some of my other posts about it here, or on the Space Foundation’s Space Watch, which is sent out monthly.