This week, ARS Technica presents some numbers to think about in a piece called, "The Falcon Heavy is an absurdly low-cost heavy lift rocket". They compare the costs of the Delta IV Heavy, NASA's Space Launch System, and the Falcon Heavy.
For the baseline, SpaceX prices the Falcon Heavy rocket, with reusable side boosters, at $90 million. For a fully expendable variant of the rocket, which is required for payloads and orbits that are so challenging that the boosters can't be recovered, the price is $150 million. That includes a calculated maximum of 64 tons to low-Earth orbit. The Heavy has not been DOD-certified yet, but SpaceX says its rocket can handle all known Department of Defense reference missions.
Only the Delta IV Heavy rocket, manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, also has this capability today. It is more expensive, but how much more is a matter of some debate. On Twitter this week, the chief executive of the Colorado-based rocket company, Tory Bruno, said the Delta IV Heavy costs about $350 million per flight. This figure, however, is strikingly lower than what Bruno cited during a congressional hearing in 2015, when he asserted that, "A Delta IV, depending on the configuration, costs between $400 and $600 million dollars."Bottom line, according to ARS, the DOD may have to pay half a billion dollars more for a single launch of certain military satellites on the Delta IV Heavy versus the Falcon Heavy. The Delta IV Heavy has a longer track record than the Falcon Heavy, eight successful missions. With the kinds of missions the DOD launches, they might think the more expensive rocket is a better investment for their Billion dollar payloads. One wonders how long that might last.
Moreover, the costs referenced above by Bruno exclude a "launch capability contract" worth about $1 billion annually, which the US government pays exclusively to United Launch Alliance. Based upon current law, this contract payment will phase out in 2019 (for Atlas rockets) and 2020 (for Delta rockets), which should increase the costs allocated to each mission. Finally, in 2019, United Launch Alliance will make the last flight of a Delta IV Medium rocket. Once this variant is retired, all of the Delta's fixed costs will fall on the Heavy variant. This will push the per-flight cost above $600 million, and perhaps considerably higher, in the early 2020s. [Bold added - SiG]
The wildcard is NASA's Space Launch System, which will out lift even the Falcon Heavy. It is, however, still in development. The SLS is an impressive system, and a family of boosters (pdf warning) the smaller one of which has more liftoff thrust and payload than a Saturn V.
However, these improvements come at a very, very steep price. Consider just a single data point: NASA annually spends about $2.6 billion to develop the SLS rocket and ground launch systems for the massive rocket at Kennedy Space Center. The SLS rocket was originally supposed to launch in 2017, but now the maiden flight of the SLS booster has slipped to 2020. That is understandable; most large aerospace rockets experience delays. However, the cost of a three-year delay is $7.8 billion.ARS states that in practical terms, NASA has paid nothing for the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket. In fact, by leasing its unused Launch Complex-39A to SpaceX for Falcon launches, the space agency has said it saves about $1 million in annual maintenance costs on the historical launch complex. The numbers leave a former NASA deputy administrator saying:
For the sake of argument, consider the costs of this three-year delay against the lift capability NASA could have bought by purchasing Falcon Heavy rockets from SpaceX in 2018, 2019, and 2020. That $7.8 billion equates to 86 launches of the reusable Falcon Heavy or 52 of the expendable version. This provides up to 3,000 tons of lift—the equivalent of eight International Space Stations or one heck of a Moon base. Obviously NASA does not need that many launches, but it could buy several Falcon Heavy rockets a year and have the funds to build meaningful payloads to launch on them. [Bold added - SiG]
"The question is really, why would the government continue to spend billions of dollars a year of taxpayer money for a rocket that will be unnecessary and obsolete?" Lori Garver, a deputy administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013, told Ars. "If the US continues this travesty, it will siphon off even more funds NASA could otherwise use for science missions, transfer vehicles, or landers that actually get us somewhere."Without a doubt, the successful test of the Falcon Heavy lobbed a metaphorical hand grenade into the launch business. Even the Director General of the European Space Agency said they'd better start developing "disruptive ideas" to counter competitive pressure in the aerospace industry.
There's no mention of the Blue Origin New Glenn booster, and no explanations, so while I know it's going to be big, perhaps they haven't released data to compare to the other vehicles.