The National Aerospace Plane: Cost Considerations for the Follow-on Vehicle

by Elwyn Harris


Purchase Print Copy

 FormatList Price Price
Add to Cart Paperback12 pages $20.00 $16.00 20% Web Discount

The United States and other countries have been pursuing the development of hypersonic technologies and experimental vehicles to demonstrate technical feasibility of aircraft-like operations for future space launch vehicles. Ultimately, the usefulness of these vehicles will depend as much on their economics as on their operational utility. If they are relatively cheap, they will find a number of roles and missions, but if they are expensive, they will have a hard time finding a niche. This paper examines one of the critical cost aspects of a U.S. National Aerospace Plane (NASP) derived vehicle (NDV) program--the acquisition cost of a fleet of single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicles. The paper places the vehicle acquisition costs within the context of future U.S. space launch demand. It deals with the uncertainty of the cost-estimative relationships for NASP-type experimental technologies required to perform a SSTO space launch mission--high performance materials, multimode propulsion systems, and sophisticated avionics. A sensitivity analysis is used to portray the impact of launch costs (dollars per pound in orbit) of a number of operational considerations, notably, total number of flights per vehicle, launch demand, fleet size, research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) cost, uncertainty in cost estimating relationships (CER), and investment cost. The NDV launch costs are compared with current U.S. launch costs that are based on the use of expendable launch vehicles and the shuttle. This analysis concludes that it is highly unlikely that U.S. space launch costs will decrease dramatically by the development of a single-stage-to-orbit, fully reusable NASP-derived vehicle. This conclusion was reached without considering operating and service costs, which would only increase the launch costs even more.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Paper series. The paper was a product of the RAND Corporation from 1948 to 2003 that captured speeches, memorials, and derivative research, usually prepared on authors' own time and meant to be the scholarly or scientific contribution of individual authors to their professional fields. Papers were less formal than reports and did not require rigorous peer review.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.