Why is space flight so expensive? Lowering the cost of space access has long been a major goal of rocketeers. Thus far they have largely been unsuccessful in doing so. Space travel started out and remains an exceptionally costly enterprise. The best expendable launch vehicles (ELV) still cost about $10,000 per pound from Earth to orbit. The result is that space flight remains an enormously costly business. No wonder that it has been the province of the government, a few high-end communications satellite companies, and other unique users.
Even the most modest space launchers, placing relatively small satellites of less than 4,000 pounds into orbit, still average some $25-$50 million per flight, or about $10,000-$40,000 per pound depending on the launch system. The mighty Saturn V Moon rocket, the most powerful launch system ever developed, had a thrust at launch of 7.5 million pounds of thrust. It could place into orbit a massive payload of 262,000 pounds, but to do so cost an enormous $113.1 million per launch ($465 million in 2015 dollars). And those are just basic launch costs to orbit; they do not include the cost of satellite development, indemnification, boost to optimum orbit, ground support and transportation, operations, and the like.
In 1972 NASA promoted to President Richard M. Nixon and the American people the idea of a reusable Space Shuttle as a means of reducing the cost to orbit from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound. To conduct an aggressive space exploration effort, NASA officials declared in 1972, “efficient transportation to and from the earth is required.” This could be best provided, they believed, with reusable launch systems. Some NASA officials even compared the older method of using expendable launch vehicles like the Saturn V, Atlas, Delta, and Titan rockets to operating a railroad and throwing away the locomotive and box cars with every trip. The shuttle, they claimed, would provide the United States with low-cost, routine access to space.
At that time space observers calculated that a Titan IIIC cost $24 million to procure and launch, while each Saturn IB cost $55 million. Carrying 23,000 pounds to low Earth orbit, the Titan IIIC delivered its payload at a cost per pound of about $10,000. The Saturn IB cost about $15,000 per pound to deliver its 37,000 pound payload. It was these launch costs that NASA officials sought to reduce by a much-heralded factor of ten.
The Space Shuttle, therefore, became an attempt to provide “low-cost access [to space] by reusable chemical and nuclear rocket transportation systems.” George M. Low, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, voiced the NASA position on this objective on January 27, 1970: “I think there is really only one objective for the Space Shuttle program, and that is ‘to provide a low-cost, economical space transportation system.’ To meet this objective, one has to concentrate both on low development costs and on low operational costs.” “Low cost, economical” space transportation became NASA’s criteria for the program, and it was an effort to deal with a real-time problem of public perception about space flight at the time: that it was too expensive.
A subtle, but vital, change, occurred during the policy debate over whether or not to build the shuttle in the early 1970s that has affected the cost of space access ever since. As a result of deliberations between NASA and the White House’s Office of Management of Budget, the question of access to space shifted from “what is the least costly design for access to space” to “what design will provide low-cost access to space.” As a result, NASA’s rationale for the shuttle became much narrower and instead of talking about the benefits of the vehicle in toto, it’s rationale became just that it be low-cost. To achieve this, NASA had to raise the projected flight rate to amortize the large development cost which in turn led to policy decisions to place as many payloads as possible on the shuttle, with consequences that were not realized until the loss of Challenger in 1986 and the effective grounding of the American launch capability for more than two years.
NASA had originally intended to achieve cost-effectiveness on the shuttle through economies of scale, as late as 1984 estimating that they could fly as many as 24 missions per year. This proved an unattainable goal; perhaps even an undesirable goal since it would require nearly two launches a month to achieve it. Instead, NASA might have cut operational costs by investing more money in cost-saving technologies at the beginning of the program. Dale D. Myers, who served as NASA Deputy Administrator in the post-Challenger era, suggests that reductions in the cost of flight operations might have been achieved “had the design team concentrated on operations as strongly as they concentrated on development.”
The Space Shuttle flew no commercial payloads after the Challenger accident in 1986 and, consequently, there has been no agreed upon cost determination for flight per pound. Accordingly, observers have produced an enormous range of cost estimates—from $42 million per flight to estimates of more than $1 billion per mission. The range of cost estimates depend, not surprisingly, on policy questions as to how much of the shuttle’s fixed costs are treated and justified by flights. If the United States were to fly one less shuttle mission per year, would it save $42 million of one $1 billion. Those answers never came.
While the goals of “low cost, economical” access to space were appropriate for NASA; they eventually proved an embarrassment to the space program. In spite of high hopes, the shuttle never provided either inexpensive or routine access to space. The Space Shuttle—second to the Saturn V in both capability and cost—launched some 53,000 pounds of payload into orbit at a cost per launch of about $450 million according to NASA. It was a high-end user, and the cost per flight was so astronomical that only the government could afford it. In addition, by January 1986, there had been only twenty-four shuttle flights, although in the 1970s NASA had projected more flights than that for every year. While the system was reusable, its complexity, coupled with the ever-present rigors of flying in an aerospace environment, meant that the turnaround time between flights required several months instead of several days.
Since neither the cost per launch nor the flight schedule met expectations, many criticized NASA for failing to meet the promises made in gaining approval of the shuttle program. In some respects, therefore, a consensus emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century that the shuttle has been both a triumph and a tragedy. The program remained an engagingly ambitious program that operated an exceptionally sophisticated vehicle, one that no other nation on Earth could have built. In that context, it was an enormously successful program. At the same time, the shuttle was essentially a continuation of space spectaculars, à la Apollo, and its much-touted capabilities remained unrealized. It made far fewer flights and conducted far fewer scientific experiments than NASA publicly predicted.
What are the most effective ways to lower the cost of space access? Is it re-usability? Is it “big, dumb boosters?” Is it design for efficient operations? Is it something else altogether, or several “something elses?” Is it a combination of these and many other factors of a more sublime nature? Whatever the answer, it is important to take into careful consideration the legacies of these earlier research and development efforts in conceiving of any future launchers.