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With the year coming to an end, astronautic launch service provider and equipment manufacturer Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has managed to further bring down the costs of launching payloads to low, medium and polar Earth orbits. While the focus of attention this year was SpaceX's historic crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS), its rapid deployment of the Starlink constellation of internet satellites and the tests of its Starship next-generation launch vehicle platform, the company's repeated reuse of a critical rocket component went mostly unnoticed.
This component dubbed the payload 'fairing' was a crucial driver of launch costs that SpaceX and its customers had to incur every time a non-Dragon payload was launched last year. In 2020, as you'll find out below, SpaceX managed to significantly reduce this cost as well - meeting C.E.O. Mr. Elon Musk's objective of reducing the cost of rocket launches.
SpaceX Expands Fairing Reuse In 2020 To Drive Down Launch Costs
During a rocket launch, a fairing sits right at the top of the launch vehicle as the rocket accelerates through the Earth's atmosphere. The purpose of this component is to protect the rocket's payload from aerodynamic and atmospheric forces that the vehicle, which often goes supersonic during flight, encounters during its ascent.
SpaceX's primary achievement in the industry has been to develop a reusable first stage rocket, which significantly brings down the cost of launches and makes access to space easier. The bulk of the cost savings from reusing the first stage for a rocket (the part that separates once the vehicle escapes the atmosphere) come from engine reuse - with these components not only being costly but highly complex to manufacture as well.
Once SpaceX had worked out the kinks of landing its first stage Falcon 9 boosters, the company was left with the second-largest driver of launch costs a.k.a. the second stage and the payload fairing.
In an interview given to AviationWeek in May, Musk shared the launch costs of the Falcon 9 and their primary drivers. According to him, once a Falcon 9 first stage has been reused, the marginal cost (the cost for a subsequent launch) for the rocket drops to $15 million. This cost covers areas such as a brand new second stage (which costs roughly $10 million) and booster and fairing recovery, fuel and refurbishment costs for the rest.
While they appear to be simple on the surface, a payload fairing itself comes with a host of sensors, thrusters, a heat shield and a parachute among other components. All these naturally drive up the cost of using new ones every time a rocket is launched. A fairing, consisting of two halves, costs $6 million to manufacture revealed Musk in a 2017 press conference following the launch of SES S.A.'s SES-10 communications satellite.
Assuming that refurbishing it requires roughly $1.5 million lets us estimate SpaceX's cost savings during this year. In 2020, the company launched 26 missions, five of which were Crew and Cargo Dragon missions that did not use any fairings. Of the remaining, fourteen were Starlink launches.
Naturally, today's brief analysis comes with its own set of caveats. Since the data has been compiled from SpaceX's launch live streams, it is assumed that the non-mention of reuse implies a brand new set. Furthermore, Musk's $6 million estimate is from 2017, and it is also assumed that any manufacturing efficiencies that SpaceX has witnessed since then do not drive down costs.
The data compilation reveals that this year SpaceX reused seven full fairing sets, for cost savings that could be as high as $42 million. These savings could be lower, such as $35 million if manufacturing efficiencies have managed to bring down fairing costs to $5 million.
Crucially, it's important to note that the bulk of these costs savings have been for SpaceX itself. Except for Sirius XM's SXM-7 communication satellite mission, which reused a fairing half, all other resued fairings have been for Starlink missions, as they provide SpaceX with much needed financial leeway in the early stages of the constellation's deployment.
Each fairing half has its own thrusters that help to orient it for re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. These thrusters make sure that the exterior of the component is facing towards the ground as it reenters, which protects its avionics and other sensitive components.