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Just How Can SpaceX Design And Operate Rockets So Cheaply?

This afternoon, a SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the International Space Station, having been launched into orbit earlier in the week by SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket, which is powered by SpaceX’s own Merlin engines. This is a historic achievement. SpaceX had already become the non-governmental organisation to launch a vehicle into space, and then return it to the Earth, following a successful test flight last year. Now they have added a second milestone; that of being the first non-government organisation to dock a spacecraft with a space station.

And they’ve done this far more cheaply than NASA could have done:

Thus, the predicted the cost to develop the Falcon 9 if done by NASA would have been between $1.7 billion and $4.0 billion.

SpaceX has publicly indicated that the development cost for Falcon 9 launch vehicle was approximately $300 million. Additionally, approximately $90 million was spent developing the Falcon 1 launch vehicle which did contribute to some extent to the Falcon 9, for a total of $390 million. NASA has verified these costs.

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To put that in context: the entire development of the Falcon series of launch vehicles has cost significantly less than the cost of a single shuttle launch.

SpaceX was founded by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk with the stated aim of using the streamlined and agile approach taken by modern high-tech start-up companies to design, build and operate launch vehicles and spacecraft far more cheaply than all previous efforts. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done; it’s starting to look like they might have been wrong.

And while watching the NASA TV feed that I had up on a corner of my screen this afternoon, I think I spotted a rather nice clue that perhaps throws just a little light on how they might have done it. The TV feed was switching between shots of the Dragon, taken from the ISS, shots of NASA mission control at Houston, which is charge of the American portion of the ISS, and shots of SpaceX’s mission control at Hawthorne, California, which was in charge of the Dragon. I grabbed a few quick screenshots.

This is the NASA control room.

It’s what you’d expect from a space agency’s mission control room. Something that features custom desks, looks like it belongs in the lair of a James Bond villain, and probably cost several tens of millions of dollars to create.

This is the SpaceX control room.

It’s just a room, with office desks and chairs, and LCD monitors. Says it all, really.

And just to celebrate the occasion, here’s a shot of Dragon floating alongside the ISS.

It’s awesome. I cannot stress highly enough just how impressed I am with what the guys at SpaceX have done. In just a few years they’ve designed and built, from scratch, not only the rocket that launched the dragon, but the engines that power it, plus the dragon capsule itself, a vehicle that’s capable of atmospheric re-entry and will, some years down the line, carry astronauts.

It’s an incredible achievement.

2 Comments

  1. Rappar

    Impressive. It looks like cyberpunk is eventually upon us. 🙂

    I thought Richard Branson’s company would be the first, though 😉

    • Jonny Nexus

      Branson (and ScaledComposites) make sub-orbital loops, which is where you fly upwards at about 3000+ mph and go into a big arc.

      SpaceX or going into orbit, which requires you to do 18,000+ mph. What SpaceShipOne did was very cool, but orbit is another thing entirely.

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