Connect with us


The Cost of Space Flight Before and After SpaceX



The Cost of Space Flight Before and After SpaceX

Can I share this graphic?
Yes. Visualizations are free to share and post in their original form across the web—even for publishers. Please link back to this page and attribute Visual Capitalist.
When do I need a license?
Licenses are required for some commercial uses, translations, or layout modifications. You can even whitelabel our visualizations. Explore your options.
Interested in this piece?
Click here to license this visualization.

The Cost of Space Flight Before and After SpaceX

On December 21, 2021, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched a cargo capsule to deliver supplies and Christmas gifts to astronauts in the International Space Station.

Just eight minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage returned to Earth, landing on one of SpaceX’s drone ships in the Atlantic Ocean. This marked the company’s 100th successful landing.

Like other companies such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Ball Aerospace, SpaceX is designing and building innovative spacecraft that are speeding up space delivery by making it more routine and affordable. But how much does it cost to launch a cargo rocket into space, and how has this cost changed over the years?

In the graphic above we take a look at the cost per kilogram for space launches across the globe since 1960, based on data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Space Race

The 20th-century was marked by competition between two Cold War adversaries, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States, to achieve superior spaceflight capability.

The space race led to great technological advances, but these innovations came at a high cost. For instance, during the 1960s NASA spent $28 billion to land astronauts on the moon, a cost today equating to about $288 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

In the last two decades, space startup companies have demonstrated they can compete against heavyweight aerospace contractors as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Today, a SpaceX rocket launching can be 97% cheaper than a Russian Soyuz ride cost in the ’60s.

The Cost of Space Flight Before and After SpaceX

The key to increasing cost efficiency?

SpaceX rocket boosters usually return to Earth in good enough condition that they’re able to be refurbished, which saves money and helps the company undercut competitors’ prices.

Space Tourism

Although competition has brought prices down for cargo flights, human space transportation is still pricey.

During the last 60 years, roughly 600 people have flown into space, and the vast majority of them have been government astronauts.

For a suborbital trip on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard, seats typically cost $250,000 to $500,000. Flights beyond that to actual orbit—a much higher altitude—are far more expensive, fetching more than $50 million per seat.

The Future of Space Flight

In a SpaceX press briefing, SpaceX Director Benji Reed said, “We want to make life multi-planetary, and that means putting millions of people in space.”

This may still seem like a stretch for most people. But, given the decreasing cost of space flights over the last two decades, perhaps the sky won’t be the limit in the near future.

Click for Comments


Visualizing the World’s Space Debris by Country Responsible

This visual breaks down just how much space debris is currently orbiting the Earth, and the nations responsible for it.



Space Debris Shareable

Space Debris: The Earth’s Orbiting Threat

Earlier in July, a suspicious object washed up on a remote beach in Western Australia. This chunk of golden metal was reported to be a piece of space debris that found its way back to Earth.

And it is not the only one. Today, thousands of defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, metal shards from collisions, and other remnants of human space exploration are orbiting the Earth at breakneck speeds.

In this graphic, Preyash Shah uses tracking data from the, maintained by the U.S. Space Force, to help visualize just how much debris is currently orbiting the Earth, while identifying the biggest contributors of this celestial clutter.

Note: Many spent rocket bodies are still actively tracked and controlled by their launch authorities, and the source tracks these separately. Space debris includes spent rocket bodies that are defunct and uncontrolled.

Ranked: Countries Responsible for the Most Space Debris

According to the data, there are roughly 14,000 small, medium, and large debris objects floating about in low Earth orbit as of May 2023. And this is not counting the millions of tiny debris fragments that are too small to be tracked.

Although space debris is a global problem, certain countries have played a larger role in contributing to the clutter. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Russia (formerly USSR) led the space race with the highest number of launched space objects. In the 1970s, they were joined by China, and objects from all three countries account for the vast majority of today’s space debris:

Space Debris Contributor# of Space Debris
🇷🇺 Russia (including USSR)4,521
🇺🇸 United States4,317
🇨🇳 China4,137
🇫🇷 France370
🇮🇳 India62
🇯🇵 Japan48
🇨🇳 China / 🇧🇷 Brazil25
🇪🇺 European Space Agency22
🇨🇦 Canada5
🇦🇷 Argentina1
🇩🇪 Germany1

*China-Brazil space debris originates from various cooperational space programs over the years

The debris count of Russia—including former launches by the Soviet Union—currently stands at 4,521. But the U.S. and China are not far behind with more than 4,000 each. And though many of these are accumulated over time, thousands of debris are created in single catastrophic moments.

China’s anti-satellite test in 2007 destroyed its own weather satellite, creating 3,500 space debris pieces. Likewise, the 2009 collision between inactive Russian satellite Cosmos-2251 and operational U.S. communications satellite Iridium 33 created over 2,000 pieces of debris.

Moving at high speeds, even tiny fragments of debris can cause catastrophic collisions. And with companies like SpaceX launching expansive satellite networks, these numbers are bound to grow.

Clearer Skies on the Horizon?

Addressing the space debris issue requires a multi-faceted approach involving international cooperation, advanced technology, and responsible space practices.

Scientists and engineers are actively exploring methods to clean up debris, including concepts like space-based debris removal systems and novel deorbiting techniques.

Some space agencies like the European Space Agency are also making plans to ensure their space technology is designed with safe disposal plans to significantly reduce the accumulation of space junk.

Continue Reading