The Recent Large Reduction in Space Launch Cost
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The development of commercial launch systems has substantially reduced the cost of space launch. NASA’s space shuttle had a cost of about $1.5 billion to launch 27,500 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), $54,500/kg. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 now advertises a cost of $62 million to launch 22,800 kg to LEO, $2,720/kg. Commercial launch has reduced the cost to LEO by a factor of 20. This will have a substantial impact on the space industry, military space, and NASA. Existing launch providers are reducing their costs and so are satellite developers. The military foresees an opportunity to rapidly replace compromised space assets that provided communications, weather, surveillance, and positioning. NASA supported the development of commercial space launch and NASA science anticipates lower cost missions, but human space flight planning seems unreactive. Specifically, it has been claimed that commercial spaceflight has not reduced the cost to provide cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). The key factor is that the space shuttle can provide cargo and crew to ISS while the Falcon 9 must also use the Dragon capsule, which adds cost and reduces payload. The cost of a Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule mission to ISS is about $140 million with a payload of 6,000 kg, $23,300/kg. The shuttle payload to ISS is less than to LEO, 16,050 kg, so its cost is also higher at $93,400/kg. The launch cost to ISS has been reduced by a factor of 4. Calculations that show commercial launch provides no cost reduction to ISS assume half the usually cited shuttle cost and allocate it to the actual delivered payload, about half the full capacity. The recently reduced space launch cost can be expected to substantially impact human space flight.