Rocket - Costs and Economics

Costs and Economics

The costs of rockets can be roughly divided into propellant costs, the costs of obtaining and/or producing the 'dry mass' of the rocket and the costs of any required support equipment and facilities.

Most of the takeoff mass of a rocket is normally propellant. However propellant is seldom more than a few times more expensive than gasoline per kg (as of 2009 gasoline is about $1/kg or less), and although substantial amounts are needed, for all but the very cheapest rockets it turns out that the propellant costs are usually comparatively small, although not completely negligible. With liquid oxygen costing $0.15 per kilogram and liquid hydrogen $2.20 per kilogram, the Space Shuttle has a liquid propellant expense of approximately $1.4 million for each launch that costs $450 million from other expenses (with 40% of the mass of propellants used by it being liquids in the external fuel tank, 60% solids in the SRBs).

Even though a rocket's non-propellant, dry mass is often only between 1/5th and 1/20th of total mass, nevertheless this cost dominates. For hardware with the performance used in orbital launch vehicles, expenses of $2000–$10,000+ per kilogram of dry weight are common, primarily from engineering, fabrication, and testing; raw materials amount to typically around 2% of total expense.

Extreme performance requirements for rockets reaching orbit correlate with high cost, including intensive quality control to ensure reliability despite the limited safety factors allowable for weight reasons. Components produced in small numbers if not individually machined can prevent amortization of R&D and facility costs over mass production to the degree seen in more pedestrian manufacturing. Amongst liquid-fueled rockets, complexity can be influenced by how much hardware must be lightweight, like pressure-fed engines can have two orders of magnitude lesser part count than pump-fed engines but lead to more weight by needing greater tank pressure, most often used in just small maneuvering thrusters as a consequence.

To change the preceding factors for orbital launch vehicles, proposed methods have included mass-producing simple rockets in large quantities or on large scale, or developing reusable rockets meant to fly very frequently to amortize their up-front expense over many payloads, or reducing rocket performance requirements by constructing a hypothetical non-rocket spacelaunch system for part of the velocity to orbit (or all of it but with most methods involving some rocket use).

The costs of support equipment, range costs and launch pads generally scale up with the size of the rocket, but vary less with launch rate, and so may be considered to be approximately a fixed cost.

Rockets in applications other than launch to orbit (such as military rockets and rocket-assisted take off), commonly not needing comparable performance and sometimes mass-produced, are often relatively inexpensive.

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