Cost estimating of commercial smallsat launch vehicles

N. T. Drenthe*, B. T.C. Zandbergen, R. Curran, M. O. Van Pelt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Commercial launch service providers’ low-priced offerings have been a hotly debated topic. However, the strategies with which these firms reduce costs have seen little incorporation into the hardware Cost Estimating Methods (CEMs) and tools prevalent in the aerospace industry. This research changes this, by providing adaptations to agency-focused CEMs that befit a new commercial paradigm, with an emphasis on smallsat launch vehicles. A parametric model for estimating costs in an early phase of development was synthesized, with which it is possible to approximate the full life-cycle costs of small commercial liquid and solid propellant rockets, as well as their cost-based price per flight. Key elements included were reductions in cost achieved by commercial launch operators, by modeling reduced subcontractor management effort and profit retention experienced at lower subcontracting rates. Prices per flight of small commercial launch vehicles were approximated by combining a parametric cost estimating methodology used frequently in the context of space agencies such as ESA and NASA, called the T1 Equivalents method, with another parametric three-part estimate developed by Koelle for development, manufacture and operations phase costs. The first two phases were estimated through the T1 method, while the operations costs were modeled with TRANSCOST. Along with the newly developed methodologies, novel insights such as required launch rates have shone a light on small commercial launch systems’ cost feasibility in the age of public-private spaceflight partnerships. The model developed was able to approximate costs of development, manufacture and price per flight of three commercial rockets to within 20% of actual reported costs or prices. However, it is recommended the model is refined as more reference cost data, especially on a subsystem level, as well as pricing for these smaller rockets becomes available in the coming years.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)160-169
JournalActa Astronautica
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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