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The efficiency of state space development

Last night, Elon Musk mentioned that the development cost of Falcon Heavy was about $500M, an astonishing sum, until you remember that NASA’s new Space Launch System has consumed about $20B to date and isn’t finished yet. Full development costs for SLS are said to be $35B.

Also, while Falcon Heavy re-uses most of its hardware and costs about $90M a flight, the current quoted SLS flight cost is $500M, and more realistically might reach $1B per flight.

However, while Falcon Heavy can only carry 63 tons to low earth orbit, SLS Block 1 will be able to carry 70 tons.

Eventually, SLS Block 2 will be available, with a payload of 130 tons to LEO. By that time, SpaceX’s BFR, which will be fully reusable, may be in flight. BFR will be able to carry 150 tons to LEO, and is intended to be fully reusable, so a flight may cost as little as a few million dollars — likely under 1/100th of the cost of a flight of SLS Block 2.

18 comments to The efficiency of state space development

  • Mr Ed

    Here in the UK, the chorus (from the media et al.) would be to blame ‘cuts’ in NASA’s budget for the high costs, and unfair competition, before demanding new regulations on Space X and a ‘level playing field’.

  • The SLS will keep on going despite the excessive cost and the fact that it is a single-use platform in an increasingly multi-use marketplace.

    It will keep being funded because it is a pork-barrel project that is essential to a number of crucial states, indeed the capabilities of those manufacturers has been a limiting factor in the design of the SLS.

    As for the “current quoted SLS flight cost is $500M” that figure is the estimate from 2012 and were recognized as being bullshit even then, given the comparisons with the STS (Space Shuttle) planned versus operational schedule and running costs.

    Even if this dream figure of $500 million a shot was realised, it would still be five-and-a-half times more expensive than the Falcon Heavy for sub-60 ton payloads (which will be most of them).

    It’s a white elephant and nothing more than that.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Quoth John Galt:

    It’s a white elephant and nothing more than that.

    On the contrary! SLS is a near complete success. It has components made in a huge number of distinct congressional districts, and it’s immensely profitable for a large number of federal contractors. The common mistake is viewing it as a mechanism to launch payloads to space, when, in fact, it’s a method for launching tax dollars into the bank accounts of powerful interests! Seen in the correct light, it has achieved everything its proponents could have dreamed of.

  • JadedLibertarian

    Does anyone else worry that SpaceX might be doing too well? If they keep making NASA look bad, I wonder if pressure might start being exerted to deprive them of their government contracts.

    Hopefully it won’t happen before they’ve established a fully fledged private space economy, then they’ll be able to tell NASA to get stuffed.

  • Laird

    Perry Metzger has it right.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Perry Metzger, here is a nifty article examining the cost comparisons.

  • Ken Mitchell

    SF author Jerry Pournelle used to say that NASA stopped being a “space program” in about 1985, and has been a “jobs program” ever since. THe mission of NASA is to lavishly dole out money to as many congressional districts as possible, and that it was MOST effective when it wasn’t wasting any money by throwing money into space.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Jaded Libertarian asks:

    Does anyone else worry that SpaceX might be doing too well? If they keep making NASA look bad, I wonder if pressure might start being exerted to deprive them of their government contracts.

    Some might argue this has already happened in the commercial crew program, where the requirements keep getting changed and SpaceX keeps getting asked for higher and higher levels of crew safety assurance. The whispers say this is so Boeing can catch up with SpaceX.

  • Paul Marks

    Elon Musk is one of what the New Statesman magazine (specifically a certain person who used to pretend to be a libertarian in order to get money from Free Market Foundations) would call the “American Oligarchy”- no doubt Mr Musk is far from perfect (one can find state subsidies in his some of enterprises without great effort), but as a unrepentant “Old Whig” I am rather in favour of “oligarchy” – or rather aristocracy. As Aristotle pointed out an Oligarchy is rule by a tightly knit group who rule in their own interests as-a-group – whereas an Aristocracy (the best) means powerful individuals and families who are independent of each other and obey the law (the law NOT being whatever they say it is). Aristocracy, allowing some people to be vastly more wealthy than other people means individuals with the resources to do great things, such as space travel, which end up benefiting the community at large.

    A community that does not allow an individual to have vast resources (in the past land – now more often money) can not expect great things to be done by individuals or families – such a community ends up coming under the domination of the STATE and declining, over the long term, into the slime.

    By the way – Aristotle pointed out that oligarchies and aristocracies even look different. In a “Polity” (city – or general country) that is under an oligarchy there is (as with an absolute monarchy – or a tyranny, not the same thing) a single great building or cluster of buildings. Whereas in an aristocracy there are spread out great houses (belonging to the different families). In his description of Aristocracy Aristotle might have been describing this country from 1688 to 1832 (perhaps to a rather later date than 1832), a land sometimes called “a confederation of country houses.

    These were not the men who invented the machines of the industrial revolution – but without the finance of their agricultural revolution and the general “landed interest” (whether formally titled or not – and most landowners did not have formal titles of nobility) the industrial revolution would not have been possible. And they financed the roads and canals that the industrial revolution depended upon in England and Wales (Scotland and Ireland had government infrastructure).

    Sadly evil treaties forbid private ownership of land on other planets – which is unfortunate as I would like to see Duke Elon Musk of part of Mars (yes a title of nobility as well – although there is a Constitutional problem with that).

  • Sadly evil treaties forbid private ownership of land on other planets

    There is a considerable body of SciFi literature addressing the issue of how hard it would likely be for a government on Earth to enforce its writ over a truly interplanetary order.

  • Laird

    Sadly evil treaties forbid private ownership of land on other planets

    In addition to the practical point Perry deH made, I would also note that Belize is not a signatory to the UN’s Outer Space treaty. If I were sending private spacecraft to other planets I would be certain to launch them from Belizean territory, then claim all of Mars (or wherever) as my personal property and thumb my nose at the UN.

  • The Wobbly Guy


    Please make sure you have your own military to defend Mars too.

  • Laird

    TWG: But of course. The thing is, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult once you’re there. Incoming spacecraft are pretty fragile things, and it’s not like you don’t know they’re coming, and their exact trajectory, months in advance.

  • Eric

    Sadly evil treaties forbid private ownership of land on other planets

    The treaties forbid declaration of territorial sovereignty, i.e. Togo can’t claim the moon as part of Togolese sovereign territory. They don’t forbid private ownership, though without territorial sovereignty it’s hard to imagine who you go to if you feel your property rights have been violated. Maybe by then we’ll have blasters 🙂

    There is a 1979 treaty that outlaws private property specifically on the moon, but none of the major powers have ratified it.

    When companies start to harvest extraterrestrial resources I suspect countries will belatedly hammer out property rights agreements. As it stands there’s no body with the authority to prevent such activities.

  • harleycowboy

    Any time the government says it will cost $$$$ for a project just double or triple that and you’ll get a more realistic cost. Private businesses are way more efficient than any government office could dream of.

  • Runcie Balspune

    However, while Falcon Heavy can only carry 63 tons to low earth orbit, SLS Block 1 will be able to carry 70 tons.

    For the same cost, Falcon Heavy carries over 300 tons, by rough calculations using your figures, this is only a problem if the payload is 64 tons.

  • bloke in spain

    There’s a huge advantage to being up-slope in a gravity well. Getting a payload to Mars requires a lot of energy. Getting a payload from Mars to Earth just requires achieving Mars’ much lower escape velocity & a good aim. A few tons arriving with the kinetic energy of all that slope behind it would make a fair hole in anyone’s seat of government.

  • Laird

    BIS: As was noted in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.