SpaceX Reusable Rocket Costs Versus Airplanes

In the most recent SpaceX Starship presentation, Elon Musk stated that the SpaceX Starship can become lower cost than airplanes for long haul cargo delivery.

I have some detailed calculations. Starship will double the payload capacity. Full fueling costs are about the same for the 1200 tons of fuel for Starship versus 50,000 gallons of jet fuel for a long-range cargo plane for each flight. However, twice payload means half the cost. Non-fuel costs for the vehicles and the frequency of flights are hugely in Starship favor. Starship should have twice the payload.

Starship starts off at half of the loaded cost per flight and four times cheaper per ton of payload and then will proceed to be ten to fifteen times cheaper. Plus they will have some initial new no competition markets for ultra-fast delivery.

The FAA compiles the cost data for passenger airlines and air cargo delivery.

The total amount of time a flight takes — from pushing back from the departure gate (“off-blocks”), to arriving at the destination gate (“on-blocks”) — is called “block time”, and airline block times vary for the same routes.

In 2022, Jet Fuel costs $5.29 per gallon.

The BOEING 787-8, manufactured from 2011-Present, requires a 2 person crew and can transport up to 381 passengers. The aircraft has a maximum operating altitude of 43,000′, a normal cruise speed of 502 KTS/578 MPH, and a 10,736 NM/12,355 SM seats-full range. The BOEING 787-8 has a 9,000′ balanced field length and 5,700′ landing distance. The cabin measures 08’03” high, 18’02” wide, and 179’11” long. It has a total baggage capacity of 5,326.00 ft^3; 4,826.00 ft^3 being internal and 500.00 ft^3 being external.

The average price for a pre-owned BOEING 787-8 is $175,000,000. A new 787 is about $300 million. A $87,500,000 loan over 120 months including $364583 per month in interest equates to a $4,387,575.02 per-period payment. Based on 450 annual owner-operated hours and $4.25-per-gallon fuel cost, the BOEING 787-8 has total variable costs of $4,056,300, total fixed costs of $532,500, and an annual budget of $4,588,800. This breaks down to $10,197 per hour. Currently, higher fuel costs push this towards $11,000 per hour.

747 have and are being used for long-haul cargo delivery. The 747s are getting phased out. They are less fuel-efficient than newer 787 or Airbus. A350s use 40% less fuel. A350s can carry 110 tons.

A fully fueled 747 costs about $280000 per long flight. A A350 might be fully fueled for $170,000 per long flight.

Other airplane costs are about 5 to 6 times the cost of the fuel.

SpaceX Starship Costs

Point to point SpaceX Starship (no heavy booster needed for non-orbital flights) will be able to carry 180-230 tons in payload. This about double the payload of the largest long haul airplanes. The cost for each Starship is currently about $30 million – made mostly of steel and with 6-9 Raptor engines. Raptor 2 engines are half of the cost of Raptor 1. SpaceX will mass-produce Raptor engines and targets engines costs getting down to $200,000 to $300,000 each. This would put the price of the SpaceX Starship as low as $3-5 million each. The SpaceX Starship is already 5 to 10 times cheaper than an airplane. The SpaceX Starship costs will become sixty to one hundred times cheaper.

SpaceX Starships will be 20 times faster than current passenger aircraft. They will be able to have ten to twenty long-haul flights per day versus one to two long haul flights for passenger aircraft. This means more flights in a day to spread labor and other non-consumable costs.

StarShip uses 1,200 tonnes of propellant and SuperHeavy uses about 3,300 tonnes. 4,500 tonnes in total.

3.55 tonnes of liquid oxygen (LOX) for every 1 tonne of liquid methane (LCH4). 3,510 tonnes of (LOX) versus 989 tonnes of LCH4.
NASA pay $160 per tonne for oxygen – and on the open market, Liquid Methane is around $400 per tonne. This is $562,000 worth of oxygen and $396,000 for Methane for a Booster and a Starship. A total of about $900,000. However, a Starship alone is $240,000 for full fueling.

Elon described oxygen as almost free. This is a future state statement where SpaceX will make massive solar-powered oxygen capture and liquefication systems. LOX is $40 per metric ton to distill from the air.

$240000 for 200000 kilograms of payload is $1.2 per kilogram or about $0.5 per pound. If SpaceX reduces the cost with direct production of liquid oxygen and production of Methane from natural gas, they could reducing fueling costs by half to $0.6 per kilogram or $0.3 per pound of payload.

Labor and other non-fuel costs will be vastly lower for the SpaceX Starship because of the massively lower initial cost, limiting financing and interest costs and because of vastly higher speed for more usage each day.

Fueling costs start out about even but SpaceX can lower costs by producing their own liquid oxygen and having involvement in making the methane. The fuel for a SpaceX Starship will move more cargo.

SpaceX will be start at four times lower cost per ton of cargo payload for earth-to-earth long distance delivery and then drop to ten to fifteen tiimes cheaper.

Passenger flights for SpaceX Starship will be moving 1200-2000 people per flight. People will be seated like being strapped in for a roller coaster. The flights will be 30-45 minutes long and involve no food or restroom breaks. People will load, fly up and then unload. Again the costs of each flight will be reduced for each person because more people will be on each flight.

I believe that the passenger compartments might be swapped in and out of each Starship using a Mechazilla.

SpaceX will be able to bring costs down below $1000 per long haul ticket and then approach $300-500 per long half ticket.

A fast load in and out could then take less than a minute. The cargo or passenger section gets leisurely loaded and unloaded and then the section gets lifted in and lifted out.

SOURCES- FAA, SpaceX data and Brian Wang analysis
Written by Brian Wang,