Why is reaching orbit so extraordinarily expensive? Each launch of a space shuttle costs between 500 million and 1.5 billion dollars, excluding any payload. A typical military satellite costs anywhere between 200 million and 400 million for an unmanned rocket and even the cheapest rockets today cost upwards of 80 million per launch.
So why is it that I can ride on an airplane, which sells for between 100 and 400 million dollars, for under one hundred dollars? Unlike planes, rockets are not reusable. Every successful launch to space results in the partial or complete destruction of the launch vehicle. Even a “reusable” space shuttle requires a complete overhaul after ever launch that includes removing, cleaning, and replacing each of the hundreds of head-resistant tiles as well as removing and hand cleaning the engines.
If airplanes operated in the same way as rockets do, building a new one for every flight, people would never be able to travel by air and air cargo would be completely uneconomical. Figuring out an economical way to reuse all or part of a rocket would result in a large drop in launch prices, providing more people and organizations with the ability to place objects and people in orbit.
There are several different efforts to develop reusable launch systems, including a European proposal to build engines that fly back to the launch site using wings and a plan by United Lauch Alliance to create engines that separate from the booster and parachute back into the atmosphere before being caught in midair by a helicopter. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has even more ambitious plans to land the entire booster like a helicopter.
Image: SpaceX reusability plan (Public Domain CC0)
These methods take very different approaches to solving the same problem, lowering the cost of putting objects in orbit. The main difference in implementation stems from differing opinions on what can be reused without significant repair. Engines are the most important object to reuse because they represent fifty to seventy percent of the cost of a new booster. However, landing and reusing a whole booster could result in even greater reductions in cost.
Solving this problem and getting the launch cost into the thousands of dollars instead of millions would completely change the world. The internet did not have a big impact on the world until it moved from the expensive, room-sized computers of universities and onto the home computers and smartphones of billions. Computers would never have become prevalent if only the largest organizations and governments could purchase them.
Lowering the launch cost of satellites will also lead to further innovation in the space sector. A start up company, OneWeb, plans to take advantage of projected reductions in price to launch a 700-satellite constellation that will bring broadband internet to the entire world, allowing remote communities in the developing world to access the internet for the first time.
Another startup, Planetary Resources, has plans to mine asteroids. Our planet contains a finite amount of resources and asteroids could provide vital minerals that are in limited supply on Earth. Specifically, asteroid mining could make the price of platinum similar to that of copper. These cost reductions would result in revolutionary advances in materials science. All of this innovation is held back not because of a lack of technology in the satellites themselves but because of the expense of putting the technology in orbit.
Lowering launch costs would trigger a staggering amount of innovation that could fundamentally change the modern world.