Listen closely, and you can hear the sound of numbers crunching.
Ever since SpaceX’s most recent success in landing an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket, speculation has swirled about future cost savings to customers from reusable rockets. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell says a 30 percent drop in the price of a commercial flight — to about $43 million — is doable.
Now a research report from the Jefferies International consultancy has checked in on the matter and estimates dependably reusable rockets could cut costs to SpaceX between 21 percent and 40 percent. That would envision per-launch costs to the Hawthorne, Calif.-based rocket company as low as $37 million, including fuel, if SpaceX were to pocket half of the savings from reusable rockets and pass the other half along to customers.
“Confusing and occasionally contradictory statements about the cost savings to SpaceX (from) from multiple reuse of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage has made it difficult to forecast reusability’s impact,” Jefferies cautioned in its April 25 report.
Luxembourg-based communications satellite operator SES, one of SpaceX’s biggest customers, has said it would be willing to use a reusable rocket if the cost could be held to $30 million.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk claims Falcon 9 first stages could be reused “dozens” of times. The Jefferies report assumes each rocket would be reused 15 times.
Jefferies also ran a cost-savings analysis for the Falcon Heavy rocket that SpaceX is developing for deep-space missions and reported similar results. The research firm said SpaceX’s gross margin projections on commercial rocket launches is likely to improve to 77 percent from a current 40 percent both with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, once regular reuse is adopted.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin numbers among other rocket companies developing reusable rockets. The Jefferies report didn’t address Blue Origin’s work, which has been with smaller, suborbital rockets.
SpaceX is expected to attempt its next first-stage landing in early May. That’s when it tentatively is scheduled to launch a Japanese communications satellite, with the landing attempted likely again involving a floating sea barge.
The privately held company wants to be able to land its rocket first stages both on land and sea, to provide flexibility depending on mission needs and circumstances.