SpaceX has won a contract to launch the US-European Sentinel 6B radar satellite as early as November 2025.
Five years ago, NASA also chose SpaceX to launch Sentinel 6A, the first of two identical satellites designed to use radar altimeters to determine global sea level more accurately than ever before. In October 2017, just six months after SpaceX’s first Falcon 9 rocket booster was repurposed and long before the cost savings that followed were fully factored in, NASA rewarded SpaceX $94 million to launch the 1.1 ton (~2,500 lb) into a relatively low orbit of 1,300 kilometers (~810 mi).
Five years and two months later, NASA awarded SpaceX $97 million to launch a virtually identical satellite into the same orbit, from the same launch pad, with the same rocket. SpaceX, however, is far from the same company as it was in 2017 and has effectively mastered the reuse of Falcon boosters and payload fairings in the half-decade since.
Since March 2017, SpaceX has reused Falcon boosters on 130 launches, including sensitive US military missions and even NASA astronaut launches. SpaceX has launched nearly 70 internal Starlink missions (carrying more than 3,600 SpaceX-built satellites) without putting the company out of business. CEO Elon Musk said the incremental cost of a barebones Falcon 9 launch is only $15 million, while another executive has already set the full cost of a Falcon 9 launch with flight-proven hardware at $28 million.
Perhaps most important, SpaceX won a contract in 2019 to launch NASA’s tiny IXPE X-ray telescope 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 approximately 600 kilometers (~370 mi). IXPE was originally slated to launch on Aerojet Rocketdyne’s troubled air-launched Pegasus XL rocket, which last launched a small NASA spacecraft for around $55 million.
Basically, that’s perhaps the best explanation why SpaceX and its executives — both of whom have relentlessly reiterated that the company’s goal is to drastically reduce the cost of orbital launches — don’t feel compelled to translating these significant cost reductions into significant prices. cuts. Simply put, despite SpaceX having been openly discussing its intentions for over a decade, no rocket on Earth can beat Falcon 9’s combination of performance, rate, reliability and affordability.
Instead of a hint of competitive pressure from the rest of the industry, especially for contracts limited to US industry, SpaceX seems to have decided that the profits from billing as much as possible outweigh the cynicism that these actions might convey. To SpaceX’s credit, the reality is also grayer than some of the limited data might imply. Over the past three years, SpaceX prices for smallsat carpooling customers decreased several times and became more flexible. Plus, given five years of inflation, SpaceX’s $94 million Sentinel 6A contract would be worth around $114 million today, meaning its $97 million Sentinel 6B launch contract technically represents a modest discount of 15%.
It’s also likely that SpaceX’s main competitors, ULA and Arianespace, would have charged tens of millions of dollars more to launch Sentinel 6A or 6B on their current or new generation rockets. But their existing rockets have no spare capacity for new contracts and their new Vulcan and Ariane 6 rockets have yet to fly, leaving SpaceX with no real competition.
For better or worse, it seems Falcon 9 rideshare customers and SpaceX’s own Starlink constellation are the only big beneficiaries of Falcon 9’s extraordinary new accessibility. Along with potential competitors like Rocket Lab’s Neutron, Relativity’s Terran-R, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and ULA’s semi-reusable Vulcan variant all years from market entry, unlikely to change until mid to late 2020s Until then, while SpaceX pricing is unlikely to revolutionize others’ access to space, Falcon 9 will remain an exceptionally affordable and available option for all launch customers, including NASA and the United States. ESA.