What a Ride to Space Costs These Days

A Minotaur V rocket carrying NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifts off from at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Chris Perry)

Just in time for your late summer beach reading needs, the Government Accountability Office has released a new report, “Surplus Missile Motors: Sale Price Drives Potential Effects on DOD and Commercial Launch Providers.”

The report looks at the costs associated with using surplus rocket motors in Orbital ATK’s Minotaur launchers, which cannot be used for commercial missions.

Yes, it’s about as exciting as it sounds.

Anyway, the report does contain a couple of interesting tables showing what a ride into space costs these days.

The first of the tables looks at small to medium commercial launchers.


As you can see, the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL and Minotaur-C boosters and Japan’s Epsilon booster at the high end of the price per kilogram.

There’s also this table that looks at a wider range of boosters.


Proton M is actually the cheapest ride to space on a price per kilogram basis at $2,826, followed by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 at $2,864. Pegasus XL is at the high end, followed by Japan’s Epsilon and the Minotaur-C.

  • Would someone be kinda enough to update the appropriate Wikipedia articles with these prices and cite the GAO report? That would be a solid service to mankind.

  • AdmBenson

    “Proton M is actually the cheapest ride to space on a price per kilogram basis at $2,826”

    Now we know why Angara rockets aren’t flying off the pad at a furious pace.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    And Antares remains a rip off at 80M a shot for such low performance.

  • AdmBenson

    Just to expand on that, I think Angara will remain commercially non-viable unless it’s re-engineered to be partly reusable or if an equatorial launch site can be provided for it. Things look even worse for Angara when you consider that Roscosmos has decided not to use it for their new Federatsiya capsule. Proton, on the other hand, is the money maker that keeps ILS and Khrunichev in business.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’m amazed at how competitive the Japanese would be if it were not for Space X and Proton. And how is it that a Soyuz does not scale with a Proton in price? I’m going to have to review my history of that as I was under the impression it was one of the cheapest rides to orbit.

  • patb2009

    it’s a good idea, do you have a wikipedia login?

  • windbourne

    F9 should be interesting early next year. They are jumping up some 7-10% in capacity, and I am going to guess that SX will cut it back to something like 55M, or perhaps better yet, they will include launch insurance as part of launch service.

    If NASA and DOD turn ugly towards SX, I will bet that the GOP will have a difficult time explaining how come they pay SO MUCH MORE. As it is, I think that SX will be close to the same number of launches as Atlas be end of 2018.

  • The price/performance numbers of that vehicle are kinda ridiculous (all their vehicles really). I guess it’s the consequence of stacking a lame solid stage on top of a great first stage. And to think, that core is the Soviet comparison of an Atlas V. They COULD have an EELV if they had a high energy upper stage.

  • Too many pieces that fall off? Having 20 thrust chambers and 12 verniers (32 in all) to lift it off the pad can’t be cheap!

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    The only thing Antares has going for it is location. If a hurricane takes out the Cape for a few months good to have a backup plan. But it’s a n expensive way to handle that scenario.

  • A good point, that is worth remembering. In OATK’s defense, their rocket has been infinitely more successful than Kistler’s K-1!!!

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Think that the mass to LEO for the Photon M is for about 46 degrees in orbital inclination. As all launchers from their respective launch site’s orbital inclination. Also it is not clear from the table 4 what altitude are they referring to for each launcher. So maybe not apple to apple comparison in performance & cost

    But this is the first time someone have attempted to compare the launch cost of the current launch vehicles.

  • therealdmt

    Woah, Orbital ATK can build them some expensive launchers! Dang

  • passinglurker

    What’s the cost breakdown of orbital-atk vehicles? Clearly high fixed prices spread between a low launch rate is the culprit but I’m curious what price they could be if they launched enough.

  • patb2009

    Reliability…

  • And you believe that why?

    Yes, it’s about as exciting as it sounds.

    Hi, first time poster(I think). I read the article to see the table. Some of us find this type of news to be exciting.

    I would be interested to see reliable numbers that show how China fits into the picture. In order to get out there we’ll eventually have to grudgingly admit to work together at times. Russia is holding their own with Proton. SpaceX has the US back in the game. India is advancing rapidly and should be able to reduce costs. Japan has a good track record of figuring it out. With prices descending toward $1000/kg, it is time to start expanding. Getting to orbit is one-third* of the problem. With our low current numbers any addition to our prescience out their is welcome.

    * Humanity has always called a surface home. As such, the path is surface to to orbit, orbit to orbit, then orbit to surface. Three steps are needed. The first is proceeding nicely at last. It time to solve the second step.

    Note to self: The “typo” is intentional. This reminder should make the reason apparent.

  • All good points. If Proton (now with new MEDIUM class!) has gotten hypergolic launches down to a science, why replace it with something that is sub-par? Why replace it AT ALL? As a 5 stage rocket (if you count the drop tank), it is extremely efficient.

    If Angara had entered service 1 or 2 decades ago the calculus might be different, but today its cores are too small.

    What do you do? I suppose what they ARE doing: claim you’ll introduce it next decade while also upgrading Proton and start working on a Zenit-derivative Soyuz 5…

  • windbourne

    yes, but texas now takes care of that.

  • windbourne

    for now, proton is the money maker. It is hard to see how it will continue picking up commercial if F9 is really on track and they lower their prices and up their weight.
    Also throw in the FH into this mix and prices go even even cheaper. They will be able to launch multiple sats into GEO at less costs than some of these charge to launch a single sat into LEO.

  • windbourne

    That is the ONLY issue and that might be gone by early next year.
    It appears, so far, that SX has gotten their ducks in a row.

  • windbourne

    what is scary is that so far, NASA and DOD have continued to use them. I am hoping that once BO fires up and is successful, that NASA/DOD will say enough is enough and cut those launches UNLESS their prices come way down. OATK has to cut top and hire engineers.

  • IamGrimalkin

    The SpaceX LEO numbers are inaccurate. The price quoted is for the falcon 9 in reusable mode; but the payload figures are for SpaceX in expendable mode, with a custom payload adaptor.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I just divided by zero and threw an exception. Thanks!

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Musk mentioned that but I don’t see how they do that without a huge dog leg around Florida (Or they get some special treat Floridans like Kazakhstanians or Chinese clearance).

  • Jeff2Space

    I think it has to do with the four strap-on boosters, the central booster, and the upper stage. That’s 6 stages! Falcon 9 does it with two. Proton does it with three.

  • patb2009

    does anyone have this as an XLS spreadsheet or graph?

  • patb2009

    SpaceX needs to really crank to get past 99% and USAF distrusts SpaceX’s numbers. They think SX is underpricing to buy market share.
    They want more flights and to see the overtime go away.

  • patb2009

    how much will that change?

  • windbourne

    so many ppl have accused SX of underpricing from the start. If so, then they should be broke.

  • IamGrimalkin

    We’ll I have no idea how much a 22.8 ton payload on a Falcon 9 would cost, because no-one has ever sent one. But the $62m figure would apply for their standard 10-ton payload adaptor, and they can cope with that in reusable mode, so you have 10t to leo. $62m/10t = $6200/kg

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Not really. The Japanese orbital launch inclination and azimuth restriction is really bad for GEO comsats from Tanegashima Space center plus restriction on annual number of launches.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Good points I did not know about. But I was under the general mis-impression that Japanese hardware was much more expensive than it is.

  • duheagle

    I think you distrust SpaceX’s numbers. USAF knows better.

  • patb2009

    SpaceX has NASA as a deep pocketed customer, so, a F9 +Dragon -> ISS is over-priced but a s/c to GTO is underpriced.

  • windbourne

    When I worked on NASA’s MGS, it required more paperwork than anything I have done except for some FDA work( ugh ). I have worked FAA, NSA, other medical systems, and none required the BS that NASA did.
    So, not surprised that SX charges more for NASA/DoD work.

    Regardless, I seriously doubt that musk has undercharged commercial space the way that many claim. Heck, when it came to re-launching, their customers were fighting for much lower prices, and SX would only go down a bit.
    All in all, they appear to be making a profit on all flights and not a one is subsidizing others.