In early 2021, SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit list prices as follows:

Launcher                 Price  Capacity   Price/kg
SpaceX F9 rideshare        $1M     200kg        $5k
Rocket Lab Electron        $6M     300kg       $20k
Virgin Orbit LauncherOne  $12M     500kg       $24k

However, in a slide from their investor presentation, aspiring "space tug"/"orbital transfer vehicle" provider Momentus suggests dedicated launchers like Rocket Lab or Virgin Orbit charge >\$70k/kg:

Slide 11 from Momentus investor deck

How much does launch really cost? I imagine the pricing in the table is a "best case scenario" assuming 100% utilization of launcher capacity, but the gap between \$70k and even \$24k is enormous.

  • $\begingroup$ The investor presentation was a little light on an aspect that I think is quite important for their business: that it allows customers to go to a dedicated orbit, and thus the launch-vehicle-only figures in the original post might not be so relevant (setting aside that they are a few years out of date) if they were for max capacity to the baseline orbit for that launcher. $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Commented Mar 18 at 20:59

3 Answers 3


What I think is missing is that if one buys a dedicated launch from e.g. Rocketlab, one is paying \$6m regardless of how much your satellite weights. If it is 300kg and can fit into their fairing you'll only pay \$20k/kg, if it weighs 60 kg you'll still be paying \$6m which works out as \$100k/kg.

If you're buying a whole rocket you're almost never going to max out the rated payload mass limit, so the whole rocket prices you're quoting for Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit both look much lower in $/kg than what an actual customer will get.

Also the prices you're quoting from the rocket builders are just base prices for the rocket (or an ESPA port from SpaceX); but if you're building a cubesat you'll need to add additional hardware to mount it to the rocket and dispense it once you've reached orbit.

In contrast if you're buying from Momentus, Spaceflight, or some other rideshare aggregator the advertised price/kg is much closer to the final price you'll pay.

As a result if you're flying a larger small sat, a dedicated small rocket launch or an ESPA port from SpaceX will end up being the cheapest option. But if you've got something like a 10kg cubesat, Momentus will charge around $700k while the other providers nominally cheaper launches will cost a million and up.

Rocketlabs does do what I think are self-organized rideshares for customers going to common orbits. SpaceX doesn't sell anything smaller than an ESPA port for $1m; potential smaller customers for their rideshares either have to buy way more capacity than they need or go with an aggregator like Momentus who'll charge a higher per kg price to cover their costs but will sell smaller payload sizes.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks – makes sense, as you point out that, low utilization (i.e. an incompletely-filled rocket) would drive up the per-kg launch price, because the fixed cost of the launcher would be spread across a smaller payload mass. Assuming 33% utilization for Rocket Lab brings the $20k/per kg list price up to $60k – pretty close to what Momentus is citing. $\endgroup$
    – user39677
    Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 23:29

The SpaceX prices are right, although I think the others are a bit higher than is reality. Rocket Lab's cost is actually closer to $6 million. Sure, the cost is higher, but you have the advantage of being the primary payload, which can save you in the development costs. Less vibration, schedule slips are less costly, and you get in to exactly the orbit you want, as opposed to having to deal with whatever the primary payload wants.

Virgin Orbit, which I believe is accurate, has two key advantages over Rocket Lab. They can launch from just about anywhere, which means you can get a low inclination orbit, and furthermore you can process your payload from your host country and launch it, which may be of value to some countries without native launch abilities, but are still friendly enough to get the US to authorize exporting the rocket.

SpaceX's costs are fixed. They make up the rest of the cost by launching their own Starlink satellites, so each rideshare is at capacity, there is no significant empty space or mass when a SpaceX Rideshare mission launches.

  • $\begingroup$ I've corrected the post with the $6M price from Rocket Lab. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – user39677
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ Any left over space on the rocket they put as many Starlink satellites on as they can. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 0:51

I discovered some additional data on the cost-per-kg for launch from some other reputable sources. You can find links to those sources in this answer. They happen to agree reasonably well with your $70,000 per kg value, but the information that I found was for resupplying the ISS, which involves a round-trip mission as opposed to a one-way mission that ends as soon as the payload reaches LEO.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ you acknowledge in the answer that your information is about ISS supply flights, i.e. not about the flights the OP asked about. So this isn't an answer to the question. $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ @user39677 The OP did ask "How much does launch really cost?", so I think they are interested in gaining a more general perspective. Perhaps user39677 can weigh in? $\endgroup$
    – phil1008
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ user39677's profile says they were last seen more than two years ago, so they're unlikely to weigh in. The question is perfectly clear about its scope, and the existing (good!) answers address the question in that scope. OP's comments on the answers reflect that as well. Specific questions really don't need answers from "a more general perspective." $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 10:50

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