Shotwell: SpaceX Could Reduce Launch Costs By 30 Percent by Reusing First Stage

Gwynne Shotwell
Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said earlier this week the company could reduce launch costs substantially by reusing the first stage of its Falcon 9 booster.

SES of Luxembourg, SpaceX’s biggest backer among the large commercial satellite fleet operators, has said it wants to be the first customer to fly with a reused stage. But SES Chief Executive Karim Michel Sabbagh said here March 8 that SES wanted a 50 percent price cut, to around $30 million, in return for pioneering the reusable version.

Shotwell said it was too early to set precise prices for a reused Falcon 9, but that if the fuel on the first stage costs $1 million or less, and a reused first stage could be prepared for reflight for $3 million or so, a price reduction of 30 percent – to around $40 million – should be possible.

Shotwell also expressed surprise at the shape that the first stage booster that SpaceX landed at Cape Canaveral in December was in after its flight.

“[Y]ou pull off the cover and that wire harness is pristine,” she said. “The metal is still shiny. You pull off the thermal protection system that we have near the engine, and that engine is beautiful. It is perfectly clean.

“It was extraordinary how great it looked. In fact we didn’t refurbish it at all. We inspected it and then three days later we put it on the test stand and fired it again. The goal is not to design a vehicle that needs refurbishing. It is to design a vehicle that we can land, move back to the launch pad, and launch again. Hopefully our customers will get comfortable flying the third or fourth time.”

She also believes that SpaceX has overcome the problem with loading densified liquid oxygen into the Falcon 9 that caused multiple delays during the most recent Falcon 9 launch attempt.

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  • Only 30%? I doubt they’ll stimulate much new demand by only reducing the price by a third. SpaceX has now been at this for a decade and a half, and thus far their main accomplishment (other than creating a nice space company) seems to have been awaking the sleeping giants. That IS a real accomplishment, but it’s MUCH slower than what we’ve come to expect from the software world.

    On a positive note for engineers like me, there is still plenty of innovation to be done and we can do it at a number of different organizations. (Yes, there have been times when I thought I might miss out on this second space race because I don’t happen to work at SpaceX, and that feeling sucked.)

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Well that’s $18 million on say a $60 million launch price bringing the price point to nearly $40 million. That’s significant particularly in light of the original price. Provided reuse is proved reliable I’d say it’ll suck more sales their way and no other launch company is going to get close. Hell most don’t now. Even gov’t subsidies are going to be a stretch.
    In all this, the most interesting development will be what BO can achieve.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I got the impression from the article that the 30% price reduction would apply to the first reuse, i.e. the second flight of the first stage. So, if they can reliably achieve more, perhaps many more, than just a single reuse, then the price could drop even further – including the first flight price.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Given how inelastic the launch market is in the short term it would be foolish for them to give money away. I am surprised they are lowering it by that much. I assume its to encourage customers to select used boosters. Changing industry behavior is always hard and you need to provide a real incentive to do so.

  • I totally agree, in established markets with established customers, they are usually fairly happy with how things are (it’s possible they may NEVER want a used rocket), though they would always like a lower price (Henry Ford’s “faster horse”) – evolutionary change. If we are talking about really growing the space market, we are talking about revolutionary change, a price point that induces NEW customers into the market. These are customers or business that weren’t possible at the old price point and they are willing to accept higher risk or lower quality (Clayton Christensen). How much do we have to lower launch for new primary loads to be feasible? While I know there must be a number, I doubt it’s $40 million.

  • windbourne

    I doubt that the costs drop 30%. I suspect that they drop a LOT MORE.
    However, SpaceX can drop the launch price by 30%, which is a different thing.
    Basically, SpaceX will want to keep the same amount of profit that they currently make on it, which means that their profits will rise in terms of %.

  • windbourne

    If SpaceX is able to launch 7 humans into space for about 70 million, then believe me, they WILL be changing the industry.
    And to be fair, if they can launch the 13 tonnes to LEO for $40M, it will make them dirt cheap as well.
    I would guess that it will help start up the cheap launch industry, as well as get other nations jumping on-board for putting their own citizens in space.

  • windbourne

    I am hoping that once SpaceX has another 12 launches under their belt, that they will do something a bit different.
    Basically, leave the price at the 30%, but give a free insurance WRT the launch. By doing that, it allows the customer to save another 5-10 million. IOW, they are raiding the insurance companies money rather than lowering their own.
    That to me would be the smart way to go.
    And if they do it up right, they will cut a deal with several of the sat builders to say that they will grab their cut of the insurance by guaranteeing their sat as well.

  • TomDPerkins

    My read as well.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    A while back Shotwell was talking about a potential F9 launch price of $5-7 million. Presumably that was with second stage return and maximum reuse. Basically, we are not going to see optimised reuse and pricing without methane. The recent BO article shows that reuse with methane is only limited by thermal cycle metal fatigue and potentially that could be reduced to insignificance by thermal protection and “refurbishment” (whatever that may entail). Elon has eluded to the possibility of hundreds or even thousands of launches for a given hardware. Yes, some parts do get hot (very hot), but we should not give up entirely on the “airliner” model of space launch. Given a couple decades of experience, $40M could quite plausibly give way to $4M.

    We shouldn’t lose optimism due to the propaganda of companies whose business model is derived from minimising R&D and maximising profit from expendable architectures. There is no physical or chemical fundamental reason why we could not develop a fully reusable launch system that could deliver 100+ tonnes to LEO, hundreds or thousands of times without significant refurbishment. Presently, it is the business model that is the limiting factor rather than the technical problems.