SpaceX has won a contract to launch the joint US-European Sentinel 6B radar satellite from November 2025.
Five years ago, NASA also selected SpaceX to launch Sentinel 6A, the first of two identical satellites designed to use radar altimeters to determine global sea levels more accurately than ever before. In October 2017, just half a year after SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 booster rocket was repurposed and long before the ensuing cost savings, NASA awarded SpaceX $94 million to launch a 1.1-tonne (~2,500 lb) to 1,300 relatively low. km (~810 mi) orbit.
Five years and two months later, NASA awarded SpaceX $97 million to launch a nearly identical satellite to the same orbit, from the same launch pad, with the same rocket. However, SpaceX is far from the same company it was in 2017, and has effectively mastered Falcon Booster reuse and Payload Fairing in the half decade since.
As of March 2017, SpaceX has reused Falcon boosters on 130 launches, including sensitive US military missions and even launching NASA astronauts. SpaceX has launched nearly 70 internal Starlink missions (carrying more than 3,600 SpaceX-built satellites) without the company going bankrupt. CEO Elon Musk has stated that the marginal cost of a barebones Falcon 9 launch is only $15 million, while another executive once linked the total cost of a Falcon 9 launch to flight-proven hardware. With 28 million dollars.
Perhaps most significantly, SpaceX won a contract in 2019 to launch NASA’s Small X-ray Telescope IXPE on Falcon 9 for just $50 million. SpaceX completed the mission in December 2021, launching the 330-kilogram (~730 lb) spacecraft into an orbit of about 600 km (~370 miles). IXPE was initially expected to launch on Aerojet Rocketdyne’s turbulent Pegasus XL rocket, which last launched a small NASA spacecraft for $55 million.
Frankly, this may be the best explanation for why SpaceX and its executives—both of whom have relentlessly asserted that the company’s goal is to radically reduce the cost of orbital launches—don’t feel pressure to translate these significant cost reductions into significant price cuts. Simply put, despite the fact that SpaceX has publicly discussed its intentions for more than a decade, there is no rocket on Earth that can beat the Falcon 9’s combination of performance, cadence, reliability, and affordability.
Rather than even a hint of competitive pressure from the rest of the industry, particularly for contracts restricted to the US industry, SpaceX seems to have decided that the profits from charging as much as possible outweigh the cynicism those measures could convey. To SpaceX’s credit, the reality is also much grayer than some of the limited data would indicate. Over the past three years, SpaceX’s prices for smallsat rideshare customers have fallen repeatedly and become more flexible. Plus, given five years of inflation, SpaceX’s $94 million Sentinel 6A contract would be worth $114 million today, which would mean a Sentinel 6B launch contract worth $97 million. Technically speaking That’s a modest 15% discount.
It’s also possible that SpaceX’s main competitors, ULA and Arianespace, will charge tens of millions of dollars more to launch Sentinel 6A or 6B on their current phones. or Next generation missiles. But their current rockets don’t have power reserve for new contracts, and the new Vulcan and Ariane 6 rockets haven’t flown yet, leaving SpaceX without any real competition.
For better or for worse, it appears that Falcon 9 rideshare customers and SpaceX’s Starlink constellation are the only major beneficiaries of the Falcon 9’s extraordinary affordability. With potential competitors like Rocket Lab’s Neutron, Relativity’s Terran-R, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Vulcan variant, ULA semi-reusable all the years since entering the market, it is unlikely to change until the mid-to-late 2020. Until then, though SpaceX pricing is unlikely to revolutionize others’ access to space, the Falcon 9 will still An affordable and exceptionally accessible option for all launch customers – including NASA and ESA.
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