Space Launch Costs in the New Era

Getting stuff into Earth orbit
was expensive but is now getting cheaper.
Duncan Lunan reviews launch technology developments.


Forthcoming Moon missions
Boosters determine launch sites
Small satellites
Land, sea and air launches
Rocket fuels
Rocket construction
In conclusion


For many years, critics of space exploration have routinely exaggerated its cost by a factor of a thousand. Every space mission, particularly if it failed, was said to have cost ‘billions’. But while space exploration isn’t cheap, even the Apollo missions cost ‘only’ US$150 million each in 1970 dollars. We’re now seeing individual missions that cost billions, like the James Webb Space Telescope, but that represents many years of development and is expected to provide years of top-class science for it.

Forthcoming Moon missions
The Space Launch System, to re-launch the US Moon landings, is rather a different matter.  At US$ 4.1 billion per launch, its commitments are being scaled back.  The Europa Clipper mission will now be launched next year on Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy, and the ‘Clipper’ (traditionally the term refers to a fast sailing ship) name is now a misnomer – to get there will take two years longer than originally planned. Even the return to the Moon has now been reallocated to Musk’s Starship/Superheavy vehicle, which has yet (2023) to make its first flight. These future Starship class rockets will be much larger than any previous rockets, capable of carrying 100 people into space.

Yet Musk has already demonstrated that huge savings can be made by centralising production, and reusability (Table 1) with his Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. The Falcon 9 development cost was approximately US$300 million, and it is estimated that would have been US$3.1 – 4.0 billion by NASA’s traditional procurement methods.(1)


Debut Year



(2021 US$)





Saturn V




Space Shuttle




Falcon 9




Space Launch System








Table 1. Costs in US$ value in 2021 per kg to low Earth orbit.
Data source: Scoles, S. (2022) Prime mover. Science, 377, 702-5.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade3377


Under the requirements of the US constitution (unique, in this sense, in the developed world), every government project’s finances must be voted on, every year, by both Congress and Senate. That requires work on space projects to be farmed out to as many States as possible, and at the launch of Artemis 1, the NASA Director stated with pride that components for the vehicle had come from every State in the Union. When compared with Elon Musk’s methods, it makes the high cost of the Space Launch System easier to understand.

Boosters determine launch sites
For the last 60 years western commercial satellites have had to fit as best they could on to boosters originally designed as military ICBMs, with progressively more powerful versions of Thor, Atlas and Titan. With improved engines, longer tanks, upper stages and clip-on boosters, their lift capabilities were far beyond the requirements for strategic weapons, and their heaviest lifts were for spy satellites, in polar or geosynchronous orbits, and the largest communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. But they all had to be launched from military facilities, adjacent to Kennedy Space Centre or from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, so there were occasional issues of availability and access. For that access reason, Europe’s series of Ariane boosters and Japan’s H-II, had no military origins and were launched from civilian sites, with large comsats in geosynchronous orbit at the top of their payload range.


© NASA. Artemis launcher.


From the outset, however, it was obvious that not all satellite payloads would be as large as that, and the Ariane boosters came with the option of a dual carrier called SYLDA (Système de Lancement Double Ariane, meaning "Ariane Double-Launch System"), which could launch two satellites on a single vehicle, and later a triple carrier, SPELTRA (Structure Porteuse Externe de Lancement Double Ariane). Still later an ASAP carrier was added for up to eight subsidiary payloads, aiming to reduce launch costs and provide a wider range of destination orbits, particularly for weather and Earth Resources satellites, in near-polar Sun-synchronous orbits; but even that came in at around US$50 million for a shared launch on Ariane V. When the Soviet Union entered the commercial launch market with its Soyuz and Proton boosters, similar multiple launches were on offer, at similar prices.


Small satellites
All the time, though, advances in technology were making the satellites smaller. Because of their military uses, the GPS navigational satellites were launched on Delta II boosters (up-rated Thors with upper stages and clip-on boosters), but for the 77-satellite Iridium series in the early 1990s, launches were made in sevens on Proton booster, in fives on Delta II, and in threes on China’s Long March 2C.(2) The Iridium-NEXT generation are now being launched by Space-X . Elon Musk’s Starlink series, into medium Earth orbits inclined to the equator like GPS and Iridium, are being launched on his Falcon 9 rockets in batches of up to 60, and the new Starlink 2 series are in batches of 51.

© ESA. The Vega launcher.

All images in this article's copyright is either ESA or NASA and used here under their respective © policies for non-commercial use. Click on the afore respective links and expand for details.

Even so, satellites were getting smaller, sufficiently so to justify the development of dedicated small boosters. The UK’s Ariel series of scientific satellites were among those launched in the 1960s by a small US booster called Scout, fired from Italy’s San Marco platform off Africa in order to reach a greater range of orbital inclinations. Arianespace, ESA and the Italian Space Agency have jointly developed a booster called Vega which can launch up to two tons into Low Earth Orbit. But ‘Cubesats’, shoebox-sized ‘bus’ vehicles for a wide variety of payloads, were pioneered in the UK by Surrey Space Technology Ltd and are now manufactured in quantity by Clydespace in Glasgow. In 2003, when the first ones were launched, typically it cost US$40,000 to launch one piggybacked on a larger vehicle. A specialised launcher for them has been added to the Japanese module of the International Space Station. But as the onboard technology lends itself increasingly to practical applications, it has created a demand for smaller, cheaper and more versatile boosters.

There are a number of ways to achieve that, and so many companies are rushing to provide it that it’s hard to cover them all in a single article. Small launchers allow a variety of new approaches to be tried, among them new launch sites, new launch methods, new propellants and new construction techniques.


Land, sea and air launches
Traditionally, big boosters have sought to gain maximum advantage by launching in the direction of the Earth’s rotation, which provides a bonus of 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. That puts the former Soviet sites at Baikonur and Plesetsk at a marked disadvantage compared to Kennedy Space Centre, and all of them at a really big disadvantage compared with ESA’s launch site at Kourou in Guiana, only six degrees from the equator. For launches to polar and highly inclined orbits this factor doesn’t apply, and hitherto they’ve mostly been conducted from Vandenburg Air Force Base, as above. Having clear launch over sea areas empty of shipping lanes counts for a lot: Japan’s space activities have been restricted for decades by the fishermen’s lobby, and attempts to find a Pacific island launch sites are frustrated by memories of occupation over World War 2. But the UK’s relatively small size makes coastal sites here attractive, because we have sea all round us, and small rockets can be shipped to sites like the Hebrides, Cornwall, Sutherland and Shetland, without needing the specialised ships and aircraft which take Ariane stages to Kourou.

© ESA. The Ariane V pads at ESA's Kopurou spaceport.


A promising attempt to get round the issues was made with the Sea Launch Project, whose two ships could sail to optimum launch positions at sea, sending up payloads with the Ukraine’s Zenit booster. The floating launch pad was restored to operation after an explosion in 2007, but launches were halted after 2014 after the Russian annexation of the Crimea. The company was transferred to Russian ownership, but seems unlikely to use or replace the Zenit any time soon.

Air launches have the same versatility as sea-going ones, and are also a well tried technique going back to the rocket aircraft of 1945 to 1960, not to mention the lifting bodies of the 1970s, one of which features at the beginning of The Six Million Dollar Man. The US military began launching small satellites from NASA’s same B-52 in 1990, transferring them to a converted Tristar named Stargazer in 1994 (both Pegasus and Stargazer were starships in Star Trek: The Next Generation).(2)

As with sea launch, air launches can be made from any latitude, and straight into the required trajectory without needing the distinctive roll manoeuvre of the Space Shuttle and other launches from ground pads. Releasing the booster at altitude confers significantly better performance, first demonstrated in the Rockoon and Farside launches from balloons in the 1950s. And the rocket can be jettisoned if it develops prelaunch problems, as had to be done with one of the X-1 series in the 1950s.

Richard Branson’s Launcher One was first intended to be launched by the White Knight carrier used for his space tourism flights, but was reallocated to a converted Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl. On 17th January 2021, the second launch attempt successfully placed 10 cubesats in orbit from off the coast of California. Virgin Orbit’s first UK launch attempt from Cornwall in January 2023 failed due to a dislodged filter in the rocket’s fuel supply, but the vehicle is already well tried and a second UK attempt is expected later in the year (2023).

© NASA. Space shuttle on a roll.

A rival company, Astraius, is expected to begin launching from Glasgow Prestwick Airport in 2024, using a Boeing C-17 Globemaster called Spirit of Prestwick, paying tribute to the airport’s history.(3) Prestwick Airport is ideally suited to space operations, with excellent road and rail facilities, nearby seaports, main approaches over water in one direction and open country in the other; a long main runway whose centre section was hardened in World War 2, in anticipation of attack by winged V2s; advanced hazardous cargo facilities; and an excellent weather record because it’s sheltered by Goat Fell on the island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. Its proximity to the satellite manufacturing facility in Glasgow is highly relevant, and the communications company Mangata Networks aims to open another on the airport itself.


Rocket fuels
Traditionally the standard propellant for the first stages of vertical launchers has been RP (Rocket Propulsion) kerosene, developed by Shell in the 1950s for the US Project Vanguard and used in conjunction with liquid oxygen. The most energetic combination possible with current technology replaces the kerosene with liquid hydrogen (LH2), mostly used for upper stages until the advent of the Space Shuttle, and now the Artemis booster. LH2 is notoriously hard to handle, mainly due to its very low temperature, and so the US military’s Vulcan successor to the Atlas V is going to use liquid methane instead, as advocated by Arthur C. Clarke in Interplanetary Flight, back in 1951.(4)

At the end of World War 2, when the German team behind the V2 and its planned successors were annexed by the US military, Britain fell heir to the alternative German programme featuring hydrogen peroxide. Personnel and equipment were moved bodily to the UK and by the late 1950s big strides had been made, with the all-rocket supersonic SR-177 already in production before it was cancelled by the government, on the grounds that all UK defence would be handed over to unmanned missiles. Hydrogen peroxide’s last bow was with the Black Arrow launcher, which put up the UK’s first and last wholly independent satellite just after the cancellation order had been issued. The technology has now been resurrected by the Edinburgh-based Skyrora Ltd, established in 2017, who have already conducted successful test firings at the former RAF Macrihanish airfield on the Kintyre peninsula,(5) and set up production facilities in Cumbernauld.

Skyrora will have the option of launching either from the Saxavord launch complex on the Shetland island of Unst,(6), or from Sutherland Spaceport on the A’Mhoine peninsula, or from Nova Scotia. Sweden and Iceland are also possibilities. Sutherland Spaceport will also be used by another UK launch provider, Orbex, whose Prime booster’s test site is in Kinloss.(7) Both of the northerly launch sites are to be used by Lockheed Martin,(8) and production facilities may well follow. The company’s existing facilities in Scotland go back to the Second World War, and there’s plenty of scope for expansion.

© NASA. The Saturn V.

Rocket construction
Construction techniques for rockets have followed much the same path for many years – so much so that the end caps for the Saturn V’s fuel tanks were the largest cold-hammered castings ever made, and Wernher von Braun had to scour the retirement homes of Europe to find technicians who knew how to do it. Traditionally the rockets’ frameworks and skins have been made of aluminium, as thin as possible – the Convair Division of General Dynamics pioneered the use of pressure bracing to maintain the shape of the Atlas, and when the method was passed on to Britain for Blue Streak, De Havilland drew on its wartime stressed-skin experience with the Mosquito fighter-bomber to make the Blue Streak’s skin much thinner, yet stronger – techniques that found their way into the development of Ariane.

Left: The X33 Aerospace Plane. © NASA.

Making changes to the technology is not easy: one reason for the failure of the X-33 National Aerospace Plane as a successor to the Space Shuttle was the difficulty of making new fuel tanks of composite materials, which failed during testing in 1999. The problems have since been solved and the hydrogen tanks of the Artemis booster are indeed made of composites, formed in ‘the world’s largest welder’. But at the other end of the scale, the entire body of the Electron booster built by Rocket Lab is carbon composite. That company was founded in New Zealand in 2006 and moved its registration to the USA in 2013. Based at Long Beach, it launches from the Wallops Beach on the east coast (launch site of the Scout, above, back in the days when it was referred to as ‘the poor man’s missile’).

Among the Electron’s many technical innovations are the use of battery-powered fuel pumps, rather than the turbines which have been standard since the V2, and the manufacture of the motors by electron beam 3-D printing. In June 2022 an Electron launched NASA’s CAPSTONE mission (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) to the Moon, arriving in November, and a private mission to Venus is planned for launch in May 2023, or failing that in 2025.

In conclusion
Space has allowed me to cite just one example for each of the innovative methods to reduce launch costs, now coming up. The various companies are unsurprisingly cagey about just how big the savings will be, but the bottom line is that each will have to compete not just with the established launch providers, but also with the other new starts. It remains to be seen whether only the cheapest will win, or whether the various innovations will prove sufficient in practise to keep them all in business for specialist uses. One thing that is for sure is that many of the rockets which have been familiar to us for decades will soon be gone. Titan IV has gone, Atlas V is going because of its dependence on Russian engines, Ariane V is about to be replaced by the simpler and cheaper Ariane VI (but with the same payload capability), Soyuz launches from Kourou are over, Proton may attract few customers if any from now on.


© ESA. Ariane V launcher.

Elon Musk’s re-usable Starship, entering the lists in Table 1, offers a massive drop in launch costs per kilogram. Due to its size, it could in theory launch all the satellites wanted in any given year, even launching entire huge constellations like Starlink in a single flight, and some recent articles have predicted that Starship could put all the other launch providers out of business. But Starship is not quite the game-changer it seems. Orbital plane changes are very expensive to make, using up a great deal of fuel, and they will be very costly for Starship because it is so big. However many satellites it carries on each launch, they will all be released at the same inclination to the Equator, though onboard propulsion could move them higher or lower. Even for the most popular destinations like geosynchronous or Sun-synchronous orbit, it may take time for a Starship launch manifest to fill up, and some customers will prefer to pay for an earlier launch on a smaller rocket.

Many scientific satellites are in near-unique orbits. IUE, the International Ultraviolet Explorer was launched in 1978 into a ‘tundra’ orbit, with a 24-hour period but inclined to the equator, with a triangular ground track over the Atlantic which brought it over each of the participating nations in turn, eliminating the need for onboard tape recorders, often the first components to fail in satellites of that time. As a result IUE remained operational till 1996, when it had to be turned off for lack of funds. By contrast, GOCE (Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer ), the gravity-mapping satellite, was in an orbit so low that it required continuous low-level thrust, and came down off the Falkland Islands as soon as its fuel was exhausted. If anyone wished to put a future satellite into an exotic orbit like that, they might have to wait a lifetime for a Starship large payload manifest to fill up for it to launch. So there will still be a market for dedicated satellite launches, and specialised boosters waiting to provide them, even if Starship dominates the mass market.

It will be interesting to come back in a few years and see which of the old guard are left, and which of the new starts have made it.

Duncan Lunan


Duncan Lunan has: published 10 books on astronomy, spaceflight and SF and contributed to 43 more; had 42 published SF stories; and written over 1,800 articles, including a monthly astronomy column ‘The Sky Above You’. He has written numerous SF reviews for Interzone and Shoreline of Infinity, as well as currently non-fiction (in the past also fiction) for SF² Concatenation.  He built the first astronomically aligned stone circle in Britain for over 3,000 years (recreated at a new site in 2019), and was a curator of Airdrie Public Observatory for over 18 years.  Details of his books and other work are on his website,, and he can be contacted there or directly at duncanlunan [-at-] gmail [-dot-] com.



1.  ‘Falcon 9’., accessed 7th March 2023.

2.  Bloom, J. (2016) Eccentric Orbits: the Iridium Story. Grove Press, London.

3.  Anon. (2022) Astraius Names Rocket Providers, Spaceflight, 64 (10), 8 (October).

4.  Clarke, A. C. (1951) Interplanetary Flight. Temple Press, London.

5.  Anon. (2022) Skyrora Fires Up Engine and Launcher License, Spaceflight, 64 (10), 2-3 (October).

6.  Anon. (2023) Saxavord Readies for Launch, Spaceflight, 65 (2), 4 (February).

7.  Anon. (2023) Orbex Builds Its Spaceport, Spaceflight, 65 (1), 8 (January).

8.  Anon. (2023) Spaceport Cornwall Is UK’s First-Ever Spaceport, Spaceflight, 65 (1), 4 (January).


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