Could Neutron Outcompete Starship?
Neutron does not recover its second stage. How could it possibly compete with Starship? This question is not as simple as you might think.
A lot of space fans have dismissed Rocket Lab’s plans for the Neutron rocket on the grounds that it does not recover its second stage like SpaceX starship. When Neutron gets launched in 2024 it will be competing with Starship not Falcon 9. Starship is scheduled for its first orbital launch already next year (2022) and taking commercial payload in 2023.
The assumption here is that a fully reused rocket will always be much cheaper than a partially reused one. However keep in mind that reuse itself is not an obvious cost saver in all cases. To get a better grasp on this question I will dig into some of the cost details of launching some different types of rockets.
Launch Costs: Soyuz vs Space Shuttle
The American Space Shuttle was partially reused. Yet this rocket was significantly more expensive than expendable Russian rockets such as Soyuz. The Space shuttle cost $450 million for a launch in 2011. Yet Soyuz could do the same for less than $50 million despite being an expendable rocket.
It is hard to get hard numbers for what Soyuz actually costs the Russian to make but I found a breakdown from a Gregory Shashkoff. He gives $46 million for a Soyuz launch. The rocket itself only costs $12 million to make.
Can we trust thus number? It means the cost of the rocket is only 26% of the total cost. The rest is shipping it, logistics, fueling, launch services, crew preparation, tracking, search and rescue landing services.
This percent is not far from what CEO/CTO Peter Beck of Rocket Lab states regarding the cost of launching a rocket. He has in interviews stated that the rocket itself is only 33% of the cost, the rest is operations and services related to the launch.
But why is all this other stuff so expensive. We can just have a look at the Soyuz launch pad illustration below. You can see there is a lot of infrastructure involved. This has to be maintained and operated by lots of people. That will not be cheap.