Entry: Price to Orbit I Monday, August 02, 2004

Back in the '70s the Space Shuttle was supposed to be the answer to revolutionise space-travel. No more expensive throwaway rockets, but routine, reuseable space-flight cheap enough for all to be involved in some way. In reality NASA over-sold the Shuttle in a valiant attempt to avoid getting the whole manned space program shut down by Richard Nixon. To achieve the hoped for price-tag of $750/kg to LEO (1980$... more like ~ $1,200/kg today) the Shuttle would need to be flying ~ 60 flights to LEO per annum with a full load of ~ 29,500 kg each time.

So why is the Shuttle so damn expensive? For starters the whole ground support system costs $2.8 billion per annum without a single Shuttle lifting off. Developing the Shuttles cost ~ $7.5 billion and building one costs ~ $1.5 billion. Say NASA had their full complement of 5 Shuttles. If they can manage 100 flights each, they then cost ~ $90 million plus those per annum housekeeping costs ($560 million per Shuttle per year), which totals (@ 60 flights/annum) $137 million/flight before we buy fuel. Surprisingly the fuel only costs ~ $1.5 million. Go figure...

So lets call it ~ $138 million to haul our 29,500 kg to LEO. That's still $4,700/kg - I guess NASA expected cheaper operating costs and wrote off the development costs - they expected to be making fleets of Shuttles eventually which would have driven that initial cost down dramatically.

My old favourite from 1979, "The Space-Traveller's Handbook", is set in a fictional 2061 in which all the 1970s dreams have come true - and Shuttle costs a mere ~ $60/kg to fly. About 100,000 people fly on a Shuttle per year, plus who knows how many cargo flights launched via reusable Heavy Lift Vehicles. Hence development costs have long been paid for, mass production has cut costs per Shuttle and ground support costs are spread over LOTS of flights (~ +2,000/annum.) That's how flight costs could be cut down dramatically - LOTS of traffic to LEO and beyond.

The reality is different, very different. In the fiction there are several Space Colonies - all Standford Torus designs - with a space population +100,000. There is a market - if not many space markets - that make Space pay-off for Earth's investment. In our current reality Earth-oriented "services" are the only pay-off. There is NO primary industry in Space, and that's what it really needs. So what can we get in Space and sell back here for $$$ ???

Stay tuned...


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