Although many people have been disheartened by the lack of large scale space exploration endeavours since the Apollo program, I was wondering if there has been an appreciable decrease in the cost-per-kg to space since then.

Does anyone have data regarding cost-per-kg to space and how this value has changed through the decades?


Numbers for cost of kilos of cargo to orbit are so hard to get it is likely impossible to answer.

For example, what is the cost of a Shuttle launch? Well, what do you include? Numbers have ranged between \$500 million to \$2 billion. That is a fairly large range of numbers.

Any time a national program is involved, there are many hidden costs that are very hard to attribute properly.

The Russian program is a great example where it is not clear they need to actually make money and cover costs.

Very few commercial launchers have real price lists, there is always a deal, or some detail.

The ULA example is interesting. While the US military just did a bulk buy of 36 cores for a theoretically fixed cost, it should be easy, right? But what about the ongoing billion dollars a year they get as ongoing funds for the program? Does that count into the cost?

Does the cost of the range get added? Air Force runs the range in Kennedy/Canaveral, should their costs be included in costs?

Even SpaceX which is theoretically posting prices, \$56 million for 28,990lbs to orbit, suggests \$1931/lb, or \$4,248.2/kilo which is pretty low. But then consider the contract with NASA for cargo to the ISS at $1.6 billion for 20,000 kilos of up mass. Which comes out to closer to \$80,000/kilo which seems ridiculous in comparison to the raw cost. But of course some of that money was designed to spur development and let the next contract be more affordable.

Of course you need to normalize orbits for payload capacity to get a comparable cost.

But there are overall trends. Government run, national prestige systems (Space Shuttle, JAXA H-2A/B, ESA Vega) do not really need to be cost effective. They exist for political reasons, darn the costs. These have no incentive to get cheaper, so have not.

The Russians were desperate for foreign currency, and were willing to sell anything at any price they could manage. China took a similar approach initially. Whether they make or lose money on these deals is very opaque.

The best news is that Antares from Orbital, and Falcon 9 from SpaceX have a goal of actually making money so they are incentivized to actually reduce costs and run an actual business.

Time will tell, but the new entrants give us hope.

  • $\begingroup$ Great response, thank you. Maybe this would be easier to answer (although judging from what you said above it still might be impossible to answer): Has the cost-per-kg to space stagnated or has it increased/decreased in price over the past few decades? $\endgroup$ May 6 '14 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ @user7388 Within gov't launch providers, stagnant or backwards. Commercial is reducing costs. Russians/Chinese trying too, but lack of reliability long term has hurt them. SpaceX/Orbital are our only hope Obi Wan at this point. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    May 6 '14 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ Wow backwards, that's rather scary considering the pace of almost every other technological development. $\endgroup$ May 6 '14 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @user7388 It has been an incentive issue. The payload people are willing the pay the price Ariane and Proton charge. Thus they are not pushing hard for cheaper. If you could charge that much, why would you not? More profit, if they are buying at that rate. But there are limits. ULA and H-2 have had literally a single commercial launch each in the last 10 years. Now that SpaceX is offering launches so cheap, they are winning almost every launch bid they enter. If they can get reusability going and drop prices further, it is game over for the others. (Yes, I am a SpaceX fan). $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    May 6 '14 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ The comparison gets even more muddled if you look at cost/launch where NASA's paying SpaceX \$1.6bn/12 launches works out to \$133m/launch, or about 2.4x what they're advertising for commercial sales; much smaller than the 20x from your price per kg numbers. The disparity is a combination of the ISS being in an awkward orbit, ISS cargo being volume rather than mass limited, and (I think) the 20,000 kg number not including the mass of the dragon capsule that carries the delivered cargo. $\endgroup$ May 6 '14 at 21:21

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