Falcon V Downgrade?

Hey all,
Am I the only one that noticed the fact that the new stats and prices announced by SpaceX for their vehicles shows Falcon V as having a much lower payload than previously quoted, while costing nearly $2M more?


The most recent previously quoted price for the Falcon V was $16M, though that didn’t include 3rd party insurance and range fees like the new prices, so the total fly-away price is actually more or less identical. However, the old Falcon V specs were 6020kg to a 200km Low-Earth Orbit, but now it’s back down to only 4100kg. I can see a few possible reasons for this:

  • The 4100kg is nearly identical to their previous early estimates for payload. It could be that they accidentally put the old payload numbers in when making the chart. Unlikely though that they’d make a screwup like that.
  • It could be that they’re going back to more conservative numbers for the Falcon V payload until they have the vehicle further refined, since they appear to be going back and changing the design so that the Falcon V/IX first stages share common tankage and engine mounts. This means that they may upgrade both payload numbers as they get closer to production (as they did with Falcon I).
  • It could be that the upgraded Merlin-1B engines they wanted to use for Falcon V aren’t doing as well in development as they had expected.
  • It could be that the added weight of being able to be interchangeable with a Falcon IX (ie extra engine attachment points, excess tankage) is enough to drop the payload that much.

All that said, if those numbers end up being how things turn out, the Falcon V is no longer anywhere near as good of a deal, but the Falcon IX ends up being quite good. The cost per pound of the Falcon IX is about the same as the previous Falcon V numbers ($1320/lb vs ~$1200-1300/lb), and the payload is big enough that you can do a lot of things with it. If they don’t end up bringing the Falcon V payload back up to the 6000kg it was previously quoted at, I expect the Falcon IX will be their workhorse vehicle. Ironically or not, its also their vehicle that probably has the highest profit margin. The marginal cost of four extra first stage engines, and possibly 1-2 upper stage engines, plus a couple thousand bucks worth of extra fuel is nothing compared to the $9M price difference. If they can actually get the Falcon IX to fly like reliably at that price point, they’ll make money. A LOT of money.

But I wonder what the final fate of the Falcon V will be. Pity, I really liked that design.

[Update: Hrmm…it looks like the Falcon I has been downgraded from 670kg to 570kg too. The price increase makes sense, since it now includes range and insurnace costs, so the total fly-away price tag may actually be about $100k lower than previously quoted.]

[Update: Another interesting suggestion was from the comments was that due to a shortage of (or fabrication difficulties with) Al-Li alloys, the Falcon I and V had to be built with heavier, but more common Al alloys–2219 if the memory serves right. That would definitely explain all of the hit on the Falcon I, and between that and having to carry a bunch of empty tankage each flight, it might account for the payload drop in the Falcon V….I wonder if someone could twist Musk’s arm into building a Falcon V first stage that had only as many straight tank segments as it actually needs, if there was enough demand? That could possibly get back some of that lost performance and bring F5 back into the ring.]

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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9 Responses to Falcon V Downgrade?

  1. Dan Schrimpsher says:

    Their Januaray 2004 press release about the Falcon V said:

    The Falcon V also significantly increases the capability of the Falcon family, with a capacity of over 9,200 pounds (~4173kg) to low orbit…
    With firm contract pricing set at $12 million per flight (2003 dollars) plus range costs

    So in 2005 dollars that is about $12607452 adding range cost and insurance (I assume), $18m seems pretty reasonable given that they hadn’t built it yet. And with the IX, they may expect fewer V lanches which could increase cost.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Dan,
    The most recent numbers (as of last month or so) were 6020kg to LEO and $16M for flight (plus range and insurance costs). I can see the increase in price since they’re now including range and insurance. I can also see upping the price to try and encourage people to upgrade to the F9, and to deal with the lower expected traffic. What I’m still wondering is why they dropped the payload. If it was still 13,250lb, even the slight price hike would still leave it as a very nice vehicle to use. But with the performance cut and the price hike, it seems like a rather pointless launcher. Much more expensive, and much less useful.
    ~Jon

  3. Mr. X says:

    In terms of downgrading the payload mass of Falcon V, this wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened. Falcon I’s projected performance numbers have been dropping, in part due to the lack of Al-Li to build the upper stage. Heavier Al alloys were substituted and the rocket has lost some capability.

    As far as Falcon I’s actual performance numbers, I will be holding my breath until the first launch out of Kwaj.

  4. Elon Musk says:

    Falcon 5 has lower payload for two reasons:

    1. SpaceX originally planned to upgrade the Merlin 1 to 100klbf sea level. Instead, the upgrade is only to 85klbf and resources are being focused on the Merlin 2.

    2. The Falcon 5 is carrying a lot of extra tankage on the first stage.

    The first reason explains about two thirds of the difference and the second reason one third.

    Falcon 1 paylod dropped by 100kg due to no reliable Al-Li source.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Well, that was certainly authoritative. Thanks, Elon!

    — Nathan Koren

  6. Mike Puckett says:

    Straight form the Horses mouth!

    Mr. Musk,

    Any prospects of securing a steady source of Al-Li in the future?

  7. Paul Dietz says:

    Don’t they have about $600 M worth of Al-Li at Michoud?

  8. Jon Goff says:

    Elon,
    Wow. I have to say that I’m rather surprised to get an answer on my blog straight from you. Thanks for the clarification!

    1. SpaceX originally planned to upgrade the Merlin 1 to 100klbf sea level. Instead, the upgrade is only to 85klbf and resources are being focused on the Merlin 2.

    Ah…that makes a lot more sense. The planned upgrade to the Merlin 1 was the main reason given for the performance hike in the first place.

    2. The Falcon 5 is carrying a lot of extra tankage on the first stage.

    The first reason explains about two thirds of the difference and the second reason one third.

    Interestingly enough, in spite of the second problem, you’ve still managed to keep the expected performance about on-par with the original announced performance.

    And in spite of my rather exagerated tone, Falcon V should still be a nice vehicle indeed. It’s still right around the lower portion of the “sweet spot” for launching Americas Space Prize capable space vehicles, and the per unit price isn’t too bad. Maybe someone will just have to get enough business for the Falcon V to justify having one with shorter first stage tanks to regain a little of the performance….

    Anyhow, thanks for injecting some actual facts into the discussion. I’ve kinda been pushing my luck as of late with anonymous single-sourced blog entries….

    More importantly, good luck this month with the flight. Hope to hear all about it at the X-Prize Cup.

    ~Jon

  9. Mr. X says:

    The Falcon V and IX could also make for ideal GPS launchers once the Delta II is retired in the near future. Boeing really missed the boat by not proceeding with the Delta IV Small to replace Delta II.

    The downgrade in Falcon V performance might rule out GPS as a payload, but Falcon IX would be perfect.

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