What are Launch Costs?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Launch costs refer to the cost of sending a payload from the ground to outer space, specifically low Earth orbit (LEO). Typical launch costs today are $10,000 US Dollars (USD) to $25,000 USD per kilogram ($4,500 to $11,000 USD per pound), though some countries subsidize space launches, occasionally reducing cost as low as $4,000 USD per kilogram ($1,800 USD per pound). For a typical five tonne communications satellite, this adds up to between $20 million USD and $125 million USD. For launching the Space Shuttle, which weighs about 2,000 tonnes, the cost is about $800 million USD, or nearly a billion dollars. Including other expenses, the total average cost per Space Shuttle flight is about $1.5 billion USD. Clearly, this makes activities in space expensive.

Spacecraft that are intended to be used once, such as the Soyuz capsule, are cheaper, though less capable, than reusable spacecraft.
Spacecraft that are intended to be used once, such as the Soyuz capsule, are cheaper, though less capable, than reusable spacecraft.

Launch costs have been pretty much the same since the earliest days of space exploration, mostly due to an unchanging underlying technology: chemical rockets. The costs for launching a chemical rocket have been reduced somewhat through innovation (private spaceflight) as well as equatorial launch services (such as Sea Launch). Launching a rocket from the equator can minimize the necessary fuel by taking advantage of the Earth's rotation, thereby lowering the launch costs by a significant margin. Launch costs can be reduced somewhat by using reusable launch vehicles, but the poor cost performance of the reuseable Space Shuttle has caused many to question this idea. There is a consensus that a real breakthrough in decreasing launch costs will require using some new method to get to space.

The Space Transportation System, popularity known as the "Space Shuttle", reused booster rockets in an attempt to reduce launch costs.
The Space Transportation System, popularity known as the "Space Shuttle", reused booster rockets in an attempt to reduce launch costs.

Since space travel began with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, scientists have been looking at ways to exploit some method other than chemical rocketry to reach space. It has been determined that a sufficiently long cannon could be used to launch acceleration-resistant payloads into space, but no country has yet tried to build one, though a few companies are trying. A similar concept, a launch loop, would accelerate a payload using powerful magnets to escape velocity, then launch it upwards. Such an approach would also require acceleration-resistant payloads, as the accelerations on the payload would be in the range of thousands of gravities.

The need to occasionally replace a Space Shuttle's external tiles added to its launch costs.
The need to occasionally replace a Space Shuttle's external tiles added to its launch costs.

Another proposed method of reducing launch costs is the construction of a space elevator, a concept which can received some funding and attention in the United States and Japan. A space elevator would consist of an extremely long carbon nanotube cable, with a counterweight in geosynchronous orbit. Though reaching orbit would still require expending the same amount of energy, it could be expended gradually rather than over the course of a few minutes, greatly expanding the number of options that could be used to get a payload to orbit.

Launching a rocket from the equator can minimize the necessary fuel by taking advantage of the Earth's rotation.
Launching a rocket from the equator can minimize the necessary fuel by taking advantage of the Earth's rotation.
Gemini was one of several NASA projects that used rockets to put manned capsules into orbit.
Gemini was one of several NASA projects that used rockets to put manned capsules into orbit.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

anon153976

Government inefficiency and excess regulation.

anon125997

Why is it so expensive? Can anyone find a pie chart showing what part of this is so expensive? Expensive custom milled components. Fuel.

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