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In practice, however, SpaceX has experienced a dismaying series of failed test launches. Most recently, the company’s Falcon 1 failed when a fire shut down the launcher’s engine some 30 seconds after liftoff on March 24.

Indeed, the assumption that an unleashed private sector would automatically turn spaceflight into a reliable, relatively cheap service may be overly optimistic. Launching a ship into orbit is an achievement of a different order than air flight. And an analysis of actual spending by real-world rocket programs suggests that lower propellant costs wouldn’t drastically drive down overall launch costs.

It turns out that the most expensive part of any rocket project is labor – the high cost of retaining the necessary talent – which accounts for 60 percent or more of most spaceflight programs. Steven Buckley, an Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer who works with the Rocket Systems Launch Program at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, has estimated that a typical launch team includes about 50 people. That works out to as much as $7.5 million a year, Buckley calculates – regardless of the number of launches the team achieves.

High labor costs could be reduced by downsizing launch teams. But how many personnel can be cut without jeopardizing safety? The size and the salaries of launch teams, in fact, are determined by the frightening challenge of safely accelerating tons of payload to escape velocity – a speed at which problems not only cannot be fixed but often can’t be properly seen (as in both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters). Yet NASA and the companies competing for COTS program contracts are betting that both the costs and risks of spaceflight can be seriously reduced. Stay tuned.

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