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I've been looking everywhere for the detailed drivers for why it costs so much to launch cargo of any kind into LEO. From all the people I've talked with and the research through google, labor for getting the rocket ready to launch is the cost driver, since people cost a lot to pay per hour, and a lot of them are needed to build and inspect the rocket before launch. However, it never gives a breakdown as to where most of the man-hours go. I suspect it goes into building and inspecting the engines, since a lot of the assembly and qualification testing is not automated, but I haven't been able to find a good answer so I don't know.

What is the time breakdown for getting a rocket like the Falcon 9 ready for launch? Is most of the time spent in building the rocket, in assembling components for the engines? Or is it mostly spent inspecting and qualification testing those components/assemblies for flight?

Also, I know there are significant differences between the Falcon 9 and Atlas 5, but since data from SpaceX and ULA is hard to get, I figured I'd not pick only one rocket, since there might be next to no useful information out there.

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This is very broad and fairly complex question. There is a good article here that goes in some details, but basically boosters (which are the most expensive part of the rocket) have traditionally been very complex, high performance, single use items.

Since there is not much incentive to lower the cost and risk aversion is a big thing in space systems, it's much easier to stick with costly systems that are flight proven, than develop something new that's cheaper.

When you add in the overhead of the huge bureaucracies of NASA and the contractors involved the costs balloon to what they are.

So to answer your question - the reason for the high cost is the high complexity of the engines, the lack of reusability and the high overhead, not necessarily the labor of the engineers (even though that increases proportionally to the bureaucracy involved).

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  • $\begingroup$ That is a great article, but it glosses over the details as to why building the rocket engines is expensive. If the engines constitute most of the cost, then what segment in their production drives the cost? Is it the time it takes to fabricate components? Or is it during the assembly of those components? Or is it the qualification of the engine? $\endgroup$ – user11377 Nov 16 '15 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ I also agree with cost plus contracting there is little incentive to reduce the production cost and launch cost, and from what I understand qualifying components for rockets is very tedious (as there are a TON of tests to put new parts through). But the article said the design drove the bureaucracy at NASA not the other way around. When you say complexity of the engines, do you mean parts counts? Or difficulty in fabricating the components? (I.E. heat treatment steps, intermediate inspection steps, milling, etc.) $\endgroup$ – user11377 Nov 16 '15 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ @user11377 - I think the story with the valve is very telling. The aerospace industry has very high overhead - not due to safety requirements or engineering complexities (though they do play a part) but just due to senseless bureaucracies. From personal experience (although not with rockets) I can tell you that paperwork for the sake of paperwork and myriad of subcontractors can double and triple your development time. Ostensibly the paperwork is there to improve quality , allow better tracking etc, but it quickly deteriorates into "check the box" that can take months with virtually no benefit $\endgroup$ – ventsyv Nov 16 '15 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @user11377 - I don't think you'll get detailed cost breakdowns - aerospace companies are pretty tight lip about costs, but SpaceX's Falcon 9 cost an average of $2500 per pound compared to around $13 000 for Delta IV and Atlas V rockets. I'm guessing that most of those savings are achieved through streamlining and low overhead, as they are not reusing the boosters yet. $\endgroup$ – ventsyv Nov 16 '15 at 15:38

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