The development cost for a rocket engine drives the cost for a launcher and can be attributed to some basic parameters Apart from the few below, what others may be critical to developing and designing a rocket engine?

 1. Fuel/Oxidiser mixture
 2. combustion chamber pressure
 3. Complexity(pump-fed vs pressure-fed) in case of Hybrid/Liquid(?)
 4. Thrust requirements
 5. Flight heritage/TRL?
 6. Mission applicability/requirements
 7. Throttlability
 8. Re-ignition capability/multiple starts

  • $\begingroup$ I think an important parameter should be how similar it is to other engines and how much novel ideas it uses. $\endgroup$
    – lijat
    Sep 3, 2019 at 12:30

1 Answer 1


Your question specifically asks about "reliable" thrusters, but makes no mention of any other criteria (such as whether it be used for interplanetary missions). I will focus this answer on reliability, since cost is too complicated and mission-dependent. In this case, we should look for simplicity above all else. Simpler may mean more reliable and in that case a cold gas thruster probably fits that bill. It's just a tank, a valve, and a nozzle.

The engine that probably fits the bill for "minimal reliable engine" that has a chance of interplanetary flight would be the Apollo LM ascent stage engine. Simply put, this engine had to work no matter what - if the descent stage engine failed during descent, it had to be able to abort the landing, and it was the only engine that they had to lift off the moon.

The design was simplified with the intention of increasing reliability:

  • Pressure fed (why bother with fuel pumps?)
  • Had no throttle (why bother with throttle?)
  • Non-gimballed (why bother with the extra complexity?)

At that point it wasn't much more than a combustion chamber and a nozzle (well...)

So let's break this down into what is usually meant by "reliable": a rocket engine that is capable of long-duration spaceflight. Where this spaceflight is taking place is not relevant - LEO, Lunar orbit, interplanetary etc. Let's further require that if our engine fails then the mission will be catastrophically affected. What I mean here is basically human, long-range spaceflight, where loss of the engine means loss of the crew, and where the engine has to undergo long periods of being off, and where the engine has to fire again to get home. I am further assuming that we are looking only at technologies that have been tried in space. This more or less restricts us to chemical engines, since other types of engines have not been tried on human spaceflight.

Magically, NASA has done exactly this study (read more here). If we extend the definition of "rocket engine" to mean "multiple independent engines in a single stage", which can increase reliability at the expense of complexity, NASAs big ones are below, but there are more in that document:

  • Number of engines on the stage - in theory more is better up to a point where complexity and single engine failure rates take over. As we saw on at least Apollo 13, failure of one engine in a 5 engine stage was not a problem

  • Operation duration - in theory, engines that operate for less time are more reliable as they have less time to fail. However, if delta-V requirements for the mission is high it may be more reliable to fly a smaller engine for longer.

  • Engine thrust - in the study I reference, they have yet to do the study, but expect that lower thrust engines are more reliable. In fact, the study states that 90% of failures are correlated with thrust level alone (!)

  • Engine re-start - an engine is less reliable the more it has to start and stop

Here is the full diagram of what affects engine reliability. I'm afraid that it's more complex than an SE answer can give, so read the document!

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ I really appreciate the detailed answer, but the focus of the answer completely avoids the question but focuses on "reliability" way more and avoids the main question. Please suggest question edits such that my question gets more specific as I see that you arrive at your conclusion based on many assumptions. Reliability definitely drives up the effort with military projects requiring higher reliability and thus drive the effort up. Please add more information as to how you see reliability correlating with development effort and cost. $\endgroup$
    – Rajath Pai
    Sep 3, 2019 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ The question is far too broad. You will need to at least describe what the purpose of the engine is. Is it for atmospheric flight (pre-orbit)? Orbital maneuvers in LEO? Interplanetary flight? Crewed or uncrewed? Is it a single engine for the entire mission (like the Apollo SME) or is it part of a stage that never has to fire again? $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2019 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ I see, that's understandable . I will rethink and limit the scope of the question in a future edit. $\endgroup$
    – Rajath Pai
    Sep 4, 2019 at 13:53

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