No future for expensive single use rockets

Recent analysis of US Air Force budgets show ULA (United Launch Alliance) as charging the US air force $422 million per launch in 2020 versus about $96 million that Spacex is charging the air force.

With reusable rockets Spacex will be able to charge even less. In Elon Musk’s video announcement of the Spacex BFR he indicated that it would be lower cost to launch than the Spacex Falcon 1. This would mean at $7 million the Spacex BFR launch 150 tons would have less than a $50 per pound launch cost.

Space launch insurance companies are no longer charging a premium for launches using reused Spacex rocket stages.

The Spacex BFR still has to be built and is 2-6 years away from begin developed and having commercial flights.

The Falcon Heavy should be launched within 30-60 days. This will lower the price per pound compared to the Falcon 9.

There have been several op-ed articles that assert, Musk seeks a monopoly on the US national security launch market. In addition to saying this allows Musk to fleece taxpayers, some of the more overdone authors assert that it could kill Americans.

Crony Capitalism for Aerojet

US Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, inserted Section 1615″ to the Defense Authorization Act. Rogers’ language concerns the procurement of new US-made rockets. The US military is required to have assured access to space, and this means two separate launch systems to get its spy and communications satellites into orbit. It currently has three—the Delta and Atlas families of rockets built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX. However, ULA wants to stop building the Delta rockets because they are expensive, and the Atlas fleet uses Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines, which Congress wants to phase out.

Two sources familiar with the legislation told Ars that Rogers added Section 1615 specifically to benefit Aerojet and its AR1 rocket engine.

“The purpose of the provision is simple,” one Washington DC source said. “Instead of the Department of Defense continuing their open-ended, market-friendly risk reduction investment across several providers to enable Russian-engine-free launch capabilities, Rogers wants DOD to fund Aerojet to build AR1 to be inserted into Atlas V.” In other words, the language benefits Aerojet by favoring its “drop in” engine solution over building a completely new Vulcan rocket.

Aerojet wants to keep about $400-600 million of Air Force money for the development of the AR1 rocket.

Other applications and justifications for different launch systems

Despite the large and increasingly dominant price advantage for Spacex, there will be a second place US rocket launch company. The US military is requiring a second option.

There is are several small rocket companies like Rocket Labs that will be making inexpensive rockets using 3D printing technique. Reusable rockets will become similar to the airplane market. There will be quite a few competitors in the small size market.

Spaceplanes like the Reaction Engines vehicles will be funded and will be used for military applications.

There will be other space vehicle niches that will justify and create the business case for other kinds of vehicles and technologies.

There will be no future for expensive single use rockets.

30 thoughts on “No future for expensive single use rockets”

  1. “there have been several op-ed articles that assert, Musk seeks a monopoly on the US national security launch market”
    That link refers to Breitbart, which is as extreme right and vacuous as Huffington Post is for the left.

    Musk could only get a monopoly by building a clearly superior product, which is what capitalism is all about. They should be celebrating him, but instead they want to tear Musk down. Is it because he comes from South Africa, and even a white African is suspicious in their eyes? What’s the problem?

  2. A fully reusable rocket will be far less expensive than an expendable one IF (and only IF) its flies often with low refurbishment. To fly often it has to be cheap and to be cheap it has to fly often…
    Elon said so in his IAC 2017 presentation : there’s about 60 commercial launches per year and if Spacex could take 50% of the market that gives 30 satellites. But many of those could be sent in one launch so the market doesn’t exist for such a rocket. Here comes “Starlink”. If Spacex has a few thousand satellites to launch for his constellation, BFR will fly often and it will become cheap. If for whatever reason “Starlink” can’t be done, dark clouds ahead…
    Starlink is the starter of their “fully reusable” rocket scheme. And when you have a cheap fully reusable HLV, a larger commercial market will appear because once in LEO you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system.

    • Ballparking R&D costs for one flying example at $2bn launch costs of $7mn per launch and cost recovery in 5 years, if it flies once a year it is $407mn per launch and if 26 times a year it’s $22.4mn per. Then for about $400mn you need to build another one. If 5 year payback costs are then assumed again, then the launch costs are $10mn and $87mn respectively.

      Assuming the rational step of developing an electric propulsion high Isp bus for satellite distribution is undertaken, and that at worst this cuts the effective payload to LEO in half to 75tons and these are long tons, then the respective launch costs per pound are:

      $135.66 for 26 launches/per year, first example, $2466.67 for 1 launch/per year, first example, $61.07 for 26 launches/per year, second example, & $527.27 for 1 launches/per year, second example per pound to LEO respectively.

      Where this really gets interesting is that presuming another $1bn +$400mn gets you two flying examples of the Mars BFS. With pathfinder/ISRU precursor missions permitting the fuel for it, each can make 2 trips per synod. 2000 emigrants per year moving themselves and 2000 pounds of gear inclusive at $2mn per slot. The way that works is you “invest” a chunk of your 2000 pound allotment into enterprises of economic interest to the other colonists. It doesn’t matter if you make little of economic interest on Earth when your chief interest is the economy of people on Mars.

    • And you are always going to have end of life Falcons, maybe single use rockets on very difficult trajectories–you are not always going to get everything back.

    • Bezos is building an engine, the BE-4, for the New Glenn booster, which will have seven of these engines in is first stage, and one in its second stage. He will also be selling this engine to ULA for their Vulcan rocket, with 2 engines in the first stage. The primary use is New Glenn, however, not the Vulcan.

  3. Not to forget there will be Bezos New Glenn coming in two years and they are going to be the cheapest option before The BFR will be ready which will happen who knows when and maybe even after. The Musk is making a lot of buzz but he will never have a monopoly on the big launch market. Bezos has much bigger pockets than him.

    • Bezos has a higher net worth, but not meaningfully so. Pocket size is irrelevant once you’re in the tens of billions. And Musk has a lead in flight proven rocketry that Bezos has to play catchup on. It’s great that there will be competition though, it will make Spacex even better.

    • Musk has stated many times that he does not want to have a monopoly, that it would be bad for his business, that his goal is to foment a competitive market because he believes that is the best way to make humans in space (and electric cars) ordinary things. And his behavior corresponds with those sentiments pretty well. Musk certainly has other goals and he is ambitious, he is not a saint (no such thing), but he is not a zero sum player.

  4. There will be no future for expensive single use rockets.

    For commercial launches. But the government will always bail out ULA. The AF will be forced to toe the pork barrel line just as NASA does. One way or another.

    • Sorry my friend the USAF is not NASA, NASA is civilian and thinks like you. The USAF is a military operation and does things in a military fashion and the military way is alien to your thoughts and ways of thinking. If you don’t believe me then enlist in the USAF then you would understand but I know that you can’t survive basic training.

  5. It’s a last-ditch effort before Blue Origin gets their BE-4 working. The BE-4 is the ECONOMICAL solution to the “second provider” requirement, but Aerojet is hoping for one last contract to keep the pork spigot spewing a little longer. Rest assured most of it will be squandered and squirreled away offshore somewhere.

  6. “…some of the more overdone authors assert that it could kill Americans.”

    Killing Americans is clearly a huge problem, as opposed to killing those dirty foreigners!

    • Too big to fail.

      And they will bring any excuse for keeping it alive. Even if every SLS launch costs 100x BFRs and launches 1/100th less for the same money.

      Digging dams with spoons instead of shovels in action.

      • What makes this an even better analogy is that you don’t dig dams, you build them.

        So we are comparing one method of doing something completely wrong, with a slightly more efficient method of doing something completely wrong.

    • The SLS is still born. When it comes time for it to launch its over whelming cost and waste of tax payers dollars will be so apparent when compared to Elon Musk Falcon Heavy ( Space X cost will be even less at that time) that the elected officials who supported it in the first place will be voted out of office. I hope you will join in to vote them out.

      • “…..the elected officials who supported it in the first place will be voted out of office.”

        Unfortunately, no. Those people are people like Senator Nelson, of Florida, and Senator Shelby of Alabama, and Rep. Lamar Smith of of Texas. These are the people who have made it clear since 2010 that without SLS/Orion there will be *no* NASA budget. They will not be voted out, because they bring home the pork. They are not so much Democrat or Republican as they are LBJians. They follow in the footsteps of Lyndon Baines Johnson, in using NASA’s budget to leverage more political power for themselves, at home and in Congress.

  7. I see a potential for “never come down again” rockets. Which is not quite the same as “single use”, but a good deal of the hardware on a rocket could have substantial salvage value in space, once we have a serious manned presence there.

    Think back to Skylab, for instance. Large rockets incorporate simply enormous pressure vessels, potentially capable of being converted into living space. Or just used as disposable meteor shielding for the actual habitat.

      • Yes, that was particularly stupid of NASA. I think they were concerned that if they were put in orbit they would be expected to do something with them. And we might have ended up with a space station, or orbital fuel dump, or something equally annoying.

        • It’s always worth speculating about how someone who appears to be a wicked idiot might be doing something good and sensible, at least from their perspective.

          I can imagine that having a bunch of large, but not useful at this point, external tanks floating around in low orbit could pose a threat. As we can see from the Chinese Tiangong I, if you have a big satellite and you aren’t maintaining it, it will probably come down at some point. Only you don’t have control over where and when. This doesn’t strike me as ideal.

          • While true, this scenario had obvious design solutions that were presented at a number of conferences between 1975 and 1985.

        • “And we might have ended up with a space station, or orbital fuel dump, or something equally annoying.”

          More to the point, we might have not spent the time between 1983 and 1995 designing one space hab module after another for JSC to oversee said development. You canna play like you’re LBJ in Texas or Alabama, or Florida without commanding billions into the hands of voters and donors. Could you really be so cruel as to make the LBJians give up that opportunity? Oh! Well, …join the club.

    • “Never come down again” would apply to the final stage. The first stage is what is being re-used, as least on the SpaceX Falcon 9, so the two uses are not incompatible.

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