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According to this question, a payload fairing costs 'several million' dollars.
From the outside, the fairing seems like a simple structure: aluminium honeycomb sandwiched between 2 sheets of carbon fiber composite. What makes such a simple structure so expensive to build?

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  • $\begingroup$ There is more to it, wiring and pneumatics to separate the two halves quickly, but it does seem odd... $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Apr 12 '16 at 14:45
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They are expensive because the manufacturing process is complex.

In this video, there is a good section explaining how those structures are built: NASA 360 - Composite Materials. Very complex and labor intensive process that can hardly be called "simple". I doubt they have invested in something like this to highly automate the process.

I disagree with Hohmannfan that it is expensive because each is unique. It seems to be rather standardized as described in Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle PAYLOAD USER’S GUIDE. It describe what comes standard with the list prices and what kind of customization is available with extra cost. I doubt SpaceX would accept a customer who require completely custom fairing to be built.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Custom" does not have to mean an absolutely unique design, and the testing for compatibility with each payload is by default a non mass-produced process. $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Apr 13 '16 at 5:53
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Fairings are hand crafted.

Not in the sense of old tools used, but because the production totally lacks the mass production principle. Each and every fairing is pretty much unique, highly influenced in design by that particular payload. The structure is indeed just 'simple sandwiched aluminium honeycomb and carbon fibre', but as the forces and temperature loads on this structure are not insignificant, and a fairing payload will result in mission failure, you pretty much have to run custom tests and analysis on all the joints and areas on an unique design for every single mission.

It is also vital for the fairing to be able to separate from the launcher cleanly, without causing unexpected disturbing thudding on the rocket or the payload. Add that extra hardware, and the new battery of test and analysis to the list.

All in all, the costs required to make those highly specific fairings may easily cost several million dollars, and that is money you want to spend, as the cost is relatively small compared to the whole launcher, and getting it done right is essential. Better not screw up an o-ring or something.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is it true that each fairing "is pretty much unique". If this is the case, why would SpaceX bother to try to recover them? A recovered fairing created to be "unique" for that launch would not meet the requirements for the next launch which would require its own "unique" fairing? $\endgroup$ – Mike H Jun 18 '18 at 22:31
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The structure needs to be designed and built to a standard where it is able to withstand the extreme heat and vibrational environment of the launch process, while protecting the internal payload as best possible. But still be able to separate quickly and efficiently once in orbit so it doesn't interfere with the trajectory of the spacecraft, thrusters are often used which require propellant which is expensive. And the structure can only be used once (so far).

Bear in mind though that the total of a space mission usually ranges from hundreds of millions to a few billion dollars so just a few million doesn't make that much of a difference.

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It's expensive primarily due to the lack of competition in the marketplace for space parts and the high level of red-tape, quality control, testing and regulatory requirements that go along with space flight. By comparison, high performance yachts routinely use vacuumed bagged carbon sandwich hulls with identical construction techniques that are often much larger and more complex than any space fairing and they produce them at a fraction of the cost.

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    $\begingroup$ Yacht's don't have extremely critical tasks like separation and ejection at precise times and in precise directions to allow satellite deployment (failure to do so at the correct time and in the correct way, would be mission-ending and result in hundreds of millions in immediate losses plus a devistating loss of reputation of the launch provider) provide strength against similar dynamic loading, provide the same level of environmental protection (e.g. sound, dynamic pressure) ramped pressurization, have reradiation systems, thrusters, etc. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 18 '18 at 3:43

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