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Elon Musk estimates that a Starship launch could drop to as low as $2 million.

A Falcon 9 launch costs $50 million (when reused).

What makes such a huge price difference?

Will it use a different fuel?

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    $\begingroup$ Citation needed. Who claims a Starship launch will cost $2 million, and what exactly is the claim? $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ It may cost $2 million eventually, but that price won't be achieved for a long time. The first customer launches will cost around $50 million, or so I have seen. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Apr 22 '20 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ Pay attention to the distinction between cost and price. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ "Will cost \$2 million" is a very different claim from "could drop to as low as \$2 million." $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ Everything is cheap before it's working. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 19:36
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Two things--

  1. You are comparing an (estimated) cost (Starship Launch) with a price (reusable Falcon 9 launch). The actual cost of a reusable Falcon 9 launch is less than what they will charge for it-- the actual cost is known only to SpaceX, but external estimates run as low as $20 million.

  2. The cost of the Starship launch is optimistically estimated at pretty much just the cost of the fuel/expendables. The estimate assumes that Starship/Super Heavy will fly so many times each that their amortized construction cost for a single flight is very low, and that some many Starship launches will be happening that the launch service/prep will also be inexpensive. The Falcon 9 launch cost must include the expendable second stage and the cost of the first stage amortized over only a relatively few launches. Launch prep/services for a Falcon 9 still use a pretty traditional model similar to expendable boosters, so are much more than what is envisioned for a Starship/Super Heavy, which is conceived as an everyday repetitive operation like an airport.

To sum up: the original comparison is apples to oranges; fully re-usable, very high launch cadence Starship is presumed to result in low amortized construction and operation costs, and finally the $2 million estimate is probably chock-full of Musk optimism.

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  • $\begingroup$ Starship will have a \$2 million version but it's only available if you go to the showroom and specifically ask for it , and they won't be building any until they've sold 100k of the \$20 million version. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 17:22
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The Starship launch price of $2M is very much a thought experiment.

Remember, this was announced in 2003 regarding Falcon 9 costs:

The costs, which nominally assume no advantage for recovery, are \$6M for a standard Falcon and $10M for a heavy Falcon.

Just a bit later:

With firm contract pricing set at \$12 million per flight (2003 dollars), the $1500 cost per pound to orbit will represent a new world record in the cost of access to space.

By 2005, this had went up to \$35M:

Falcon 9 is priced at \$27 million per flight with a 12 ft (3.6 m) fairing and \$35 million with a 17 ft fairing. Prices include all launch range and third party insurance costs, making Falcon 9 the most cost efficient vehicle in its class worldwide.

We went from \$6M to $60 million in quite a short time. This answer highlights a few consumer-facing prices very well.

It stands to reason that the actual launch cost of Falcon 9 is somewhere in the ballpark of \$20M for SpaceX.

Lets look at the actual quote:

"If you consider operational costs, maybe it'll be like $2 million" out of SpaceX's pocket each time, Musk said (Highlights mine)

Its a maybe and it is only talk about operational costs. this doesn't include R&D costs. And it means they are hoping to have enough launches to drive down prices. More launches means the fixed costs are divided by more launches - it also means the costs go up when they do fewer launches.

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    $\begingroup$ Pay attention to the distinction between cost and price. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove I did. the first paper specifically talks about costs, and later I added this part "It stands to reason that the actual launch cost of Falcon 9 is somewhere in the ballpark of $20M for SpaceX.". I think that is sufficiently exploring the costs vs. price aspect, but feel free to disagree. $\endgroup$
    – Polygnome
    Apr 22 '20 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ You're mixing figures for the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9. Big surprise, the vehicle with 9x as many first stage engines and 34 times the payload costs more. Starship costs less because it's fully reusable. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ChristopherJamesHuff is predicted to cost less It doesn't exist yet. $\endgroup$ Apr 22 '20 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ Good post. Also not calculated in that optimistic $2 million number: Launch insurance, launch pad leasing costs, amortization of investment, profit, cost of money. Also, Musk is basing this on his notion of building fleets of Starships and flying a huge number of flights per year. As of now, there is no market for that number of flights. Not even close. We can assume the market will expand as spaceflight gets cheaper, but by how much is a guessing game. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hanson
    Apr 23 '20 at 19:59

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