Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, is credited for ushering in the era of commercial space flights. The company has lowered the costs of space access, and is redefining the entire space exploration equilibrium.
SpaceX has managed to become the dominating player in an industry that is traditionally monopolized by government space powers. Regarding the United States, NASA and government-funded companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin were the sole players for decades.
Through Elon Musk’s vision, innovative ideas, and the smart applications of economic principles, SpaceX has broken through that barrier.
So, what are the average costs of space travel? How did SpaceX achieve those feats?
By lowering the costs of space access, SpaceX is now focusing on its other main objectives. Moon landing, exploring Mars, and enabling the human race to become a spacefaring civilization.
Examining the Costs of Space Access
The 48th International Conference on Environmental Systems (ICES) estimated that the average launch cost was $18,500 per kilogram. The conference also noted that the typical range was between $10,000 and $32,000 per kilogram.
According to NASA, the Space Shuttle program’s average cost per launch was estimated at $450 million.
Whereas for SpaceX, the price tag is inferior by a considerable margin. The company’s Falcon 9 rockets can deliver up to 22,800 kilograms to Low-Earth Orbit. SpaceX’s website lists the standard payment plan for a Falcon 9 launch at $62 million.
This translates to an average of $2,719 per kilogram.
Ultimately, this sets SpaceX apart from the competition. It enables the company to win heaps of new contracts by both private enterprises and governmental entities from all over the world.
2 Factors Help Lower the Cost of Space Access
Overall costs are also determined by a very important factor: rocket design and the parts used to build it.
The Atlas V is a booster produced by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint-venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The Atlas V can employ two rockets, each tailored to a specific phase of flight. The first-stage is powered by the Russian-built Rd-180 engines. They burn a highly refined form of kerosene called RP1.
The Atlas V may include solid-fuel strap-on booster which provide additional thrust at liftoff. The rocket is also equipped with Centaur upper-stages, which are powered by RL10 engines. Those engines burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.
Using two kinds of rockets in the same vehicle may optimize its performance. But both factory and operational costs become significantly higher.
SpaceX, on the other hand, designs its Falcon boosters with commonality in mind. Both of the Falcon 9’s stages are powered by RP1 and liquid oxygen, so only one type of engine is required.
Both stages have the same diameter and are constructed from the same aluminium-lithium alloy. This reduces the amount of tooling and the number of processes and enables huge cost savings.
Vertical Integration is perhaps the X-factor when it comes to further driving down the costs. And SpaceX has optimized the use of that microeconomic principle.
Vertical integration is when a company controls the entire supply chain, from manufacturing to end sales.
SpaceX thus controls all the stages of production which are normally operated by separate firms. It also allows the company to dictate terms, pricing, and availability of materials and supplies.
SpaceX is thus able to reduce costs and prevent production slow-downs caused by circumstances beyond its control.
SpaceX also has a very short supply chain. Its entire production facilities are located in the United States, within a 2,291 mile radius. This means that the company has a shorter distribution channel, and by extension, higher production output.
In the aerospace industry, vertical integration is not widely applied. Companies are essentially aggregators.
They buy certain components from other companies to build one completed rocket. All the component suppliers have their own component suppliers to make their products. The suppliers of the suppliers have to cover their development and manufacturing costs. They have to sell their components at a markup in order to make a profit. By the time components get to the company that assembles the rocket, the price of the latter becomes expensive.
SpaceX has the complete upper-hand in manufacturing costs in comparison to the competition. It has a dependable and well-designed fleet of rockets. And by harnessing the benefits of vertical integration, it has streamlined its production capabilities and has gained a competitive advantage.
The drive to commercialize human spaceflight has progressed bit-by-bit. SpaceX is the first private company to actually put people into space.
On Saturday May 30 2020, the company made history when it launched two NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon capsule. The mission, dubbed the “Crew Demo-2”, was significant on multiple fronts.
Firstly, it marked the first time since 2011 that astronauts were launched into orbit from U.S. soil. Since NASA’s last Space Shuttle mission, the agency was completely reliant on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to send U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
Through SpaceX, the U.S. will now have continued access to the International Space Station (ISS) without Russian dependence.
Secondly, the success of Crew Demo-2 marked the beginning of a new age for the commercial space industry. When it comes to space exploration, private companies are now seen as reliable entities
SpaceX is now conducting launch missions more than any other country and company. It is also pushing the envelope of technological innovations, and rekindled the masses’ interest in space exploration.
Overall, spaceflight is bound to become an affordable proposition thanks to the efforts of SpaceX.