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I had an argument with my friend recently about the effect of technology maturation on spaceflight cost. In the process, I managed to find this infographic: Cost of Spaceflight Image source

The trend for cost reduction was clear to me, even discounting recent data, but my friend pointed out that: a) this picture seems to only have first launches, while, for example, Soyuz spacecraft modifications were in use for all of the relevant period, b) it collates very different vehicles, which affects the spread (for example, Space Shuttle and Saturn V), and c) majority of data points still fall in a relatively narrow price range that seems to be present over all of the covered timeframe.

My question is: do we observe that spaceflight costs are indeed reduced with technology improvement? I would like to find data on how cost of operation of long-running programs like Soyuz or Apollo and Space Shuttle changed over their lifetime, preferrably both with and without adjuctment for inflation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking about the cost to the launch provider or the price they charge to their customers? $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @DaveGremlin cost to the launch provider, I guess. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ The price reductions shown in that graph are impressive. Then I realized that the Y axis is logarithmic, and it really blew me away how dramatic the cost reduction has been. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 15:56

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Before I start writing about why spaceflight is getting cheaper, I think it should become clear where the price is coming from. NASA has been getting billions of dollars to build and launch rockets, but where does that money go?

The main cost is to build the rocket. According to this site https://www.eclipseaviation.com/how-much-does-nasa-pay-for-rocket-fuel/#0 NASA only spends around 200 thousand on rocket fuel per launch. The remaining money is used to build the rocket. This site https://mashable.com/article/nasa-rocket-cost-sls-artemis-space here claims that it took around 3.8 billion to build each Saturn V rocket for the final Apollo missions. The Apollo program cost around 200 billion dollars (The 200 billion wasn't just for the rocket).

SpaceX has been reusing rocket parts. On their webpage https://www.spacex.com/launches/ it says that they relaunched their rockets about 110 times. Currently a single launch with the Falcon 9 rocket costs about 60 million dollars. However the second stage is not being reused so it still costs a fair bit. Starship is fully reusable and is expected to cost around 1 million per launch. Theoretically it could cost only 200 thousand per launch if you only count the price of the rocket fuel. Starship will be carrying up to 1000 people and meaning that a ticket on Starship will probably be a bit more than a 1000 dollars.

Newer technologies are making things smaller and lighter, however the main reason is that spaceflight is becoming cheaper is that the rockets are being reused.

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    $\begingroup$ Elon Musk always uses the airline industry as an example: imagine, you threw away the airplane and built a new one from scratch every time you land. That would be insanely expensive. And now imagine that instead of having tens of thousands of flights per day, you only had a couple of flights per year, so you cannot even achieve the economic benefits of mass production. The only way to truly bring cost down is full and rapid reusability. (Where "rapid" is a clear reaction to the Space Shuttle program.) $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ I guess it's not that clear, but I'd like to focus more on history than on current events. I understand the reasons for reusable vehicles being cheaper than expendable ones, but I'd still like to compare how similar vehicles prices' evolve; and with SpaceX financial data being their private business it's hard to evaluate Falcon launches' cost. $\endgroup$ Aug 5 at 15:50

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