MadSci Network: Engineering


Date: Thu Feb 15 23:51:21 2001
Posted By: Todd Engelman, , Aerospace Engineer, US Air Force, C-130 Technical Coordination Group
Area of science: Engineering
ID: 980819349.Eg


You're correct that it currently costs about $10,000 per pound to launch 
items on the space shuttle.  It's a little less to launch on an unmanned 
rocket, but not much.  There are several reasons for this.

First, there are thousands of people required to build a rocket, prepare a 
rocket for launch, train personnel, and in the case of a reusable rocket 
like the space shuttle... maintain to rocket.  These people are highly 
trained and are paid well for their knowledge.  

Second,  it can cost billions of dollars to develop a new rocket and 
easily take 5-10 years.  During this time, the company building the rocket 
is not receiving revenue on their investment.  

Third, all current launch vehicles have parts that are not reusable.  Most 
unmanned rockets are one time use only.  Even the space shuttle lets it's 
large fuel tank burn up in the atmosphere and must be replaced for each 
new mission.

Also, rockets require lots of fuel.  Fuel makes up over 90% of the weight 
of most rockets.  On the space shuttle, the booster rockets and main fuel 
tank are almost entirely filled with fuel.  It takes a lot of energy to 
accelerate a payload to a speed of 17000 miles per hour and to an altitude 
of 170 miles.  

Also the payload itself is often very expensive.  Many new communications 
satellites cost almost a billion dollars.  In the event of a launch 
failure or malfunctioning satellite, a company could go bankrupt.  This 
usually means that the satellite needs to be insured, but that is a huge 
risk for the insurance company too (Lloyd's of London is about the only 
company willing to take the risk).  Therefore, the insurance cost is 
enormous for a rocket launch.

Several new rocket designs are showing promise for bringing down the cost 
to launch a payload into orbit.  Many are being designed by small, private 
companies.   These each offer innovative approaches that may help reduce 
launch costs.  The current goal is to get costs down to about $1000 per 
pound of payload.

Kistler Aerospace ( is developing a 
reusable design using airbags for landing.

Rotary Rocket Company (formerly is developing a 
reusable rocket that lands using helicopter-like blades for landing.
Images available at

Also, the X-Prize Foundation ( is offering a reward for 
groups to encourage development of manned rockets.

Eventually the cost will come down enough that people may be able to buy 
tickets for a trip into space, but for the near future most of will just 
have to look up at night and dream.

Todd Engelman

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